Twice in NY and twice at the Barbican in London. Directed by Deborah Warner and embodied by Fiona Shaw, the play as it was in London was far superior to the already quite fine Broadway premier. Colin Toibin gave the two women great liberty with the text to bring his short novel to the stage, and what they created together ultimately produced one of those performances that will make me say years from now, “yes, I was witness to that.”
Let me first take up the pre-show, “installation” part of the performance. The audience was allowed to wander about the stage, snapping photos and videos of Fiona in a plastic box dressed as the iconic Mary in blue and of, yes, the live vulture on stage. Fiona and the bird aside, there is no denying the thrill to this kid from the midwest of being on a Broadway stage–I nearly broke out into “Don't Rain on My Parade”–but that thrill was paired with an enormous self consciousness about moving from the safety of the voyeur to the middle of the spectacle itself. Nervously, trying not to be reverential or giddy with the camera, in NY I talked to one of the asst stage manager's on stage, even made a crack to Deborah Warner. I wanted to pick up things and move them. Even with the liberty of photos and on stage gawking, there was a strong common sense of “rules” still being in place.
I had more of a chance on this group think in London. I sat and watched the patterns of movement on the stage of the patrons, which circled around the bird until Fiona entered stage left and crossed to the box. Like a wave, the folks on stage moved over to circle the box. It could not have been choreographed better. In NY, folks pressed against the glass, nudged in front of each other to get a better selfie with Fiona. At the Barbican people formed a semicircle in front with about a meter between them and the box, and it was clear it would be rude to cross in front for a photo or access to the other side.
So all of this laid bare the pull of icon/celebrity/spectacle on the viewer, now in some sense a part of the spectacle themselves. The carnival atmosphere (vulture as side show attraction, selfies and videos and chatter) and that Bakhtinian carnivalesque reversal of social place invited us to believe something was being upended here, but, really, in the end, our position as slave to the show (slave to the image) was reified, as we still adhered to unstated rules of behaviour, we still returned dutifully to our seats and the show proceeded as if we had never been there. And though I would say the London crowd was more susceptible to these rules than the US crowd, nobody made off with the bird, nobody shouted from their seats, nobody refused to leave the stage (btw, though ushers did tell malingerers it was time to sit, for the most part, people on stage felt the rhythm change and left the stage at about the same time, as Fiona took up the bird.
Yes, there was a real vulture on stage (I asked a stage manager what was harder to wrangle, the vulture or the audience–she just laughed and said the vulture has a handler). I thought having a live vulture on stage in NY was hokey, gimmicky, and a way too obvious metaphor. Not so at the Barbican. And I think that was in no small part due to DW and FS simply being more rehearsed, more ready for London. In NY, Fiona (yes we are on a first name basis. Well, I use her first name. She doesn't know me) was clearly not comfortable with the bird. She took it up. She leaned back from it as far as possible, and she took it the hell off stage. At the Barbican she was more relaxed. She walked around with the bird, even let her arm bend a bit so the bird looked more casual upon it. She walked contemplatively around the stage with this bird of prey as her companion (I think of Sylvia Plath, “The Disquieting Muses”) Then, periodically in the show, she leaned on the empty bird cage, reminding us of the raptor in the wings (is a bird a raptor if it doesn't eat live things? I like the word raptor, so I'm keeping it). There was much play with light and great shadows of the bird on the scrim upstage. The vulture waiting to feed on the dead, the companion of the Mary whose story we hear shadows the rest of the story. The audience->the vulture->the apostles wanting to feed off Mary's suffering?
But, enough. Let's talk about my favorite bit of the preshow: the room under the stage. Stage left, a room under the stage was created and covered with clear acrylic. In NY, the room had a sand floor and earthenware pots and a square blue pool. At one point in the show, Mary throws the remains of a fish into the room. It was not touched or referenced in the London production, and it was designed somewhat differently. Earthenware pots (one broken), and a blue lit square at the bottom that had coins or tokens in it–I thought it looked like a gaming table of some sort, someone next to me on stage thought it looked like a pool (a wishing well?) with coins in it. In NY, I thought of this space as a tomb, a sepulchre. The associations at the Barbican were very different–it was less evocative, more cluttered, less, well, beautiful. BUT. The totally 100% cool part, the thing I can't get out of my head: you could only see it onstage. I sat in the orchestra/stalls at all the performances I went to, and if I had not walked on stage I wouldn't have known that space existed, save for the tossing of the fish guts. And the space as a designed one would not have been evident at all. I asked friends who sat in the balcony (one a scene designer, so he probably, you know, looked at the scene design rather carefully) if they could see the room from there, and they said no.
SO WHAT THE HELL WAS DEBORAH WARNER THINKING. All due respect to Fiona Shaw (see my response pt II), this haunts me as much as anything from the productions. This room. Cooler. Garbage dump. Empty grave. Plundered (broken pot) storage–memory? Empty space waiting to be filled, or having had what it contained removed? AND, save for the few who wander the stage before the show, there only, really, only for Mary/Fiona. And as carefully lit and set as any other part of the stage–actually, the only part of the stage that is beautiful, uncluttered (NY version, which was more remarkable IMHO). Is the real story, the real mystery, what is beyond the stage? That seems too simple. Fiona Shaw is a pro–I know the spaces and objects around her support her performance, but if that room was there to ground some part of her mind in a thing, a physical space, cool, but she could have found that grounding in simpler things I'm sure.
And yes, I am saying the most fascinating part of the set was not there for the audience at all
And here is a photo of two spliffs on stage because I just like saying the word and have a keen fantasy of sharing one with DW and FS and talking about the meaning of life, art and whether or not we think our toes are cute or ugly. As one does.