Holy Lies, Unholy Truth

(St John's Cathedral)


By Alison Cotes

Professional production

Editor’s note: May I stress that I did not commission this review, nor was I particularly anxious to have it, because of the possibility that by publishing it I could be accused of conflict of interest. But Olivia Stewart, who saw the play midway through the run, believed that it deserved a review, if only for the archives, so that Barbara Lowing’s performance could be recorded. So, for Barb’s sake, I have published Olivia’s review, which I know to be professional and unbiased.

Call Mary Magdalene, as portrayed in Alison Cotes’ play Holy Lies, Unholy Truth a prostitute at your own peril.

As conceived by the Brisbane theologian, and based on her doctoral research, the saint whose character has been maligned perhaps more than it has been glorified is the prototype of a feisty feminist.

Since many of the “holy lies” have been perpetrated to serve doctrinal agendas of male Church authorities, Cotes allows Mary to speak in her own voice for the first time, to give her version of events and her relationship with Jesus.

First, though, to pave the way for Mary to take centre stage, the playwright also very effectively channels the disarmingly insightful persona of TV art guide Sister Wendy. “Appearances can lie,” Wendy conspiratorially advises us in her introduction “The Art of Portraiture” from Donatello’s depiction of Mary as a ravaged hag, to Titian’s alluringly voluptuous beauty before Mary, unable to control herself any longer, bursts forth from the constriction of the nun’s habit and wimple. Proudly sporting a close-cropped fiery red `do, a defiant Mary tells us it’s time to set the record straight.

What follows is an account which, while some would consider it heretical, is a thoroughly entertaining (and well-researched) living history that schoolkids as well as adults deserve to see. (While The Da Vinci Code has revived interest in an alternative perspective of Mary as Christ’s closest confidante and perhaps even his wife Holy Lies was first staged as part of Cathedral’s Week 2002 Cotes’ Mary passes her judgment: “all kinds of trashy novels have been written about me and let’s not even mention The Da Vinci Code.”) The monologue’s artifice as a theatrical device makes it a challenging exercise for both creatives and audience, yet Sue Rider’s direction of Barbara Lowing in St John’s Cathedral’s ensures it engages rather than alienates, and at an hour the work doesn’t overstay its welcome.

Through Lowing’s impassioned personification we discover the “always popular and modest” Mary Magdalene was not a piteous prostitute who, according to Luke washed Christ’s feet with her tears Luke wasn’t even there, Mary scoffs nor was she possessed. And she certainly didn’t live for 30 years in a French cave without eating and drinking Mary tells us she never even went to France.

Mary Magdalene as we know her is probably an amalgam of different women a “muddle of Marys” including Mary of Bethany (“a spoilt little brat” who used Mary Magdalene’s cream on Christ’s feet) and the prostitute Mary of Egypt.

In telling her story concomitantly Mary also paints a portrait of a non-judgemental Christ a good Jewish boy with healing hands, who knew how to have a good time and “didn’t say anything about celibacy” or virginity. Their close relationship was a source of jealousy for the apostles another motive for Mary’s misrepresentation. While the issue of whether Jesus and Mary Magdalene were husband and wife is not addressed, we’re given an insight to a special bond, and a moving personal account of Jesus’ death and resurrection.

Mary of Holy Lies, Unholy Truth steps out of the black-and-white, emerging as neither saint nor sinner, but a flesh and blood woman who lived and loved fully; to a contemporary audience this incarnation resonates as an independent, fiercely intelligent woman with a mind of her own. Given many males (and some females) still struggle with that type of woman 2000 years later, it’s no surprise Mary would have been misunderstood in her times.

One can see a lot of Cotes the feminist herself in the passionate and provocative Mary such as in digs at blokes in silly hats like Pope Gregory the Great and “the introduction of misogyny as a doctrine” through various examples of Madonna/whore mythology, and championing “serious girl power”. Cotes’ portrait is conjectural, but no more than any other and I know which role model I prefer.

Directed by Sue Rider

Played 26 – 30 September, 2005

Running time: 1 hour, no interval

— Olivia Stewart
(Performance seen: Tue 30th August 2005)