Doesn’t it seem inevitable that Meryl Streep would one day play the mother of Christ? Lord knows she’s played just about everybody and everything else: a Holocaust survivor, a chilly Australian housewife who lost a baby to a dingo, Margaret Thatcher and Isak Dinesen and Karen Silkwood, a Prada-wearing devil, a nun with a mean ax to grind, and, coming soon to a theater near you, the devouring Oklahoma mama of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play “August: Osage County.”
THE TESTAMENT OF MARY
By Colm Toibin
Read by Meryl Streep
Simon & Schuster Audio.
What’s more, Streep is practically a religious icon herself — or an aesthetic one, anyway. She’s virtually been sanctified as the Greatest Film Actress of her generation, which is why she’s managed to gobble up practically all the juicy roles for women over 45 in Hollywood in the past decade or so. (And blithely stooped to conquer quite a few of the not-so-juicy ones, too, as in “Mamma Mia!”)
Now she’s landed a ripe plum of a different kind, and one that, in my view, provides her with yet another great role. Streep has recorded the audio edition of “The Testament of Mary,” Colm Toibin’s haunting, austere and deeply affecting book written in the voice of a figure who has gone largely voiceless (if hardly imageless) throughout the history of Christianity: the Virgin Mary, a.k.a. the Madonna, a.k.a. the woman who gave birth to the man who radically changed the course of Western history.
“The Testament of Mary” is sort of an ideal audiobook. The novel is short, to begin with (just 81 pages), and written in the first person, obviating the sometimes cumbersome chunks of description that can challenge one’s powers of concentration. In fact, Toibin conceived and wrote Mary’s testament as a dramatic monologue, which was performed by the great Irish actress Marie Mullen at the Dublin Theater Festival in 2011. Later Toibin expanded the text into a book published in 2012 and shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. This past spring, another theatrical interpretation was produced on Broadway, with another great Irish actress, Fiona Shaw, playing the role.
That staging, directed by Shaw’s frequent collaborator Deborah Warner, was to me a frustrating disappointment. Although both actress and director are inventive and highly intelligent artists, the elaborate, fussy production they came up with belied the elemental serenity that is a hallmark of the book. The voice in “The Testament of Mary” is that of a woman recalling events she witnessed — culminating, I need hardly add, in the brutal crucifixion of her own child — with a hard-won and desperately necessary detachment: To fully re-enter the emotion of the experience would lead to the total collapse of the hollowed-out shell this woman has become.
Streep’s voice is familiar to generations of moviegoers, but its beauty as an instrument can be appreciated in this context as it often cannot be in films. Streep has become celebrated for her chameleonic changes, often involving impeccable accents of various kinds. I have to confess I’ve often resisted her film work, admiring her dazzling technical facility while at the same time being distracted by it. Except in some of her lighter comic roles, she’s never been an actress who makes it look effortless; she’s no Fred Astaire of screen-acting technique.
But while the role of Toibin’s Mary is richly specific — that is the marvel of the book, how vividly and complexly human, as opposed to legendary, the figure speaking to us seems — Streep employs no accent, and obviously we are not going to be either enchanted or distracted by her adeptness at physically refashioning herself to suit a character.
The result: simplicity, honesty, a clarity that draws us into the emotional landscape of the book through the beauty of the writing — and it is as beautiful as anything this gifted Irish writer has produced. But often there is also a simmering intensity, as of overwhelming feeling held just barely in check. And there is, again, the sheer beauty of the voice, which has a cello-like resonance, slightly dark-timbred. Streep has an impressive ability to crest the structurally intricate sentences Toibin has fashioned, which sometimes have the flowing, rhythmic cadences of certain passages in the Bible itself.<nyt_text>Not that Mary’s testament lines up with the version of events depicted in the Gospels. On the contrary, her description of the confusion and mystery surrounding the last weeks and months of her son’s life differs in key respects from the version of Christian liturgy. Toibin leaves unanswered the question of whether she believes her son is the Son of God, but the clear implication is that she does not.<nyt_pf_inline>
THE TESTAMENT OF MARY
By Colm Toibin
Read by Meryl Streep
Simon & Schuster Audio.
When the disciples attempting to re-educate her into the “official” version of the story say her son had to die so that “everyone in the world will know eternal life,” a bitter note of sarcasm enters Streep’s mostly placid narrative: “Oh, eternal life!” she dryly says. “Oh, everyone in the world!”
From the perspective of a woman who watched her son die in extremes of agony at the hands of brutality such as she could not imagine witnessing and continuing to live, these words are meaningless. At other times Streep infuses her reading with a sense of quiet wonder and surprise: How is it possible that the little boy who behaved like any other grew up to be the remote, slightly grand, inaccessible young man whose stirring up of discontent has so dangerously riled the authorities? When she meets him at the wedding in Cana, she is baffled and distressed when she hears him say he is the Son of God.
Streep rises to the heights of the most harrowing passages in the book with a stealth that takes you by surprise, so fluidly does she connect the subtle changes in feeling that overtake Mary as she tells of her confusion at what is happening, her fear when she hears that her son’s death has been ordained, her horror at bearing witness to it.
Even this was not the greatest of her sufferings. That came later, when Mary looks back and recalls the terrible instinct that seized hold of her — the urge to flee, to save her own life, knowing that all Jesus’ followers and those associated with him would be targeted. (The name Jesus does not occur in the text.)
“I must let the words out,” Streep’s Mary says, and you feel the anguish of the necessary release, “that despite the panic, despite the desperation, the shrieking, despite the fact that his heart and his flesh had come from my heart and my flesh, despite the pain I felt, a pain that has never lifted, and will go with me into the grave, despite all of this, the pain was his and not mine.”
Mortal terror for her own life — the instinct to live that even the official version of the Christ story perhaps grants to Jesus when he asks God that the burden be lifted from him — came upon her fierce and irresistible. “I would leave him to die alone if I had to,” Mary says, and Streep’s voice has returned to its rigorously refrigerated tone. “And that is what I did.”
That, of course, is not the version of events that has been passed down through history, in the Bible and in the innumerable paintings that show Mary tending to her dying or dead son at the foot of the Cross.
Toibin’s exquisite book, rendered by Streep with all its detached, quiet, consoling humanity intact, belies those revered images. As Mary says in the final pages, referring to her abandonment of the dying son she had tried so desperately to save, “It is what really happened that is unimaginable.”
It’s a good day for Colm Toibin. First, his novel gets short-listed for the Man Booker Prize, and now the audiobook for The Testament of Mary – narrated by multiple Oscar winner Meryl Streep – hits stores. EW has the first snippet of the audiobook. Take a listen below to sample Streep’s interpretation. Imagine that voice reading you to sleep every night.
Meryl Streep will lend her very famous voice to the audiobook version of Colm Toibin’s Booker Prize short-listed novel The Testament of Mary, EW has learned exclusively. The audiobook will be available from Simon & Schuster on CD and for download on Sept. 10. EW’s Jeff Giles wrote of the novel, “The Testament of Mary takes an icon buried under centuries’ worth of other people’s opinions and transforms her into an unapologetically real woman who, at the end of her life, is recalling the annihilating pain of watching her son die.” The novel has also been adapted into a Broadway play starring Fiona Shaw.
It sounds like a meaty role for a 17-time Oscar nominee. “What Meryl Streep manages first is a sort of calm force; there is a naturalness in the voice, and in the phrasing. And then slowly something sorrowful emerges, it is like an undertone. It comes from the stops and the half-sighs and that can move into moments of insistent pain and out of that again into memory,” says Toibin in a press release. “She has a way of lingering on words and phrases which is always perfectly natural, but it gradually takes on a real power. I think anyone who hears it will be astonished by it.”
Another clip with Meryl Streep reading Nora Ephron audiobook “Heartburn”, this time on Youtube:
Oscar-winning actress Meryl Streep will narrate celebrated director, screenwriter and author Nora Ephron’s HEARTBURN for Random House Audio, a division of Random House, Inc. Available in July 2013 as a digital download exclusive, this will mark the first time this novel will be available as an audiobook.
The audiobook’s going to be released in July this year.
3 new clips available for the Documentary Meryl’s narrating this year, Wings of Life: