Martyr

Marius von Mayenburg translated by Maja Zade
Unicorn / Actors Touring Company
Unicorn Theatre
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What does the Holy Book mean to you? I deliberately don’t name it. German dramatist von Mayenburg’s play, first staged at Berlin’s Schaubühne in 2012, has a teenager who takes Christianity’s Holy Bible as his book of instruction but its presentation of dogmatism could equally have concerned any other religion that has a written scripture that fundamentalists seek to follow.

Divorced single parent Ingrid Sinclair (Flaminia Cinque) is worried about her son Benjamin. His schoolwork is deteriorating and he’s been cutting classes. Is he taking drugs? Being bullied?

It’s only his swimming lessons he’s been cutting, he says, and no he’s not afraid of the water, embarrassed by his pale skin or (this mum knows boys) by getting an uncontrollable erection. He finds those classes offend his religion with their mixed bathing, girls in bikinis and displays of flesh and it’s no use her giving him a sick note. He won’t hand it in unless she gives the real reason.

He does go to the next swimming class but jumps in fully clothed. It is the beginning of a confrontation between teachers and other pupils and his uncompromising, Bible-led Christianity. As he tells the school priest:

“Other religions have holy warriors, suicide bombers, martyrs who throw away their lives for their false faith. No Christian does that nowadays. Everyone thinks we should talk and find a compromise and that the Sermon on the Mount is about tolerance and that we don’t have enough cheeks to turn. That’s because you don’t read the Book and have manufactured a hippie God that you’re comfortable with who forgives everything and is kind of pro peace and smokes pot. But all that is crap, because the Lord says: do not think that I come to bring peace but a sword.”

Like so many fundamentalists, Benjamin knows his scriptures, remembers exactly those passages that support his chosen ideology and quotes them as he argues with teachers and peers.

Von Mayenburg provides no real context for Benjamin’s fanaticism, no explanation for why he starts reading the Bible in the first place and the other characters are somewhat stereotypical. But he is not trying to explain how a young man or woman becomes radicalised (though I don’t like using that word, politically it used to mean something I approved of) and those stereotypes reflect the way that a younger generation often sees its elders and the world around them.

Fellow student Lydia (Jessye Romeo), who tries to approach him, becomes a form of temptation, so too does George (Farshid Rokey), a bullied boy he befriends, but not before they have hatched a plot with murderous intentions.

Benjamin’s beliefs are not only affecting his own life, he is beginning to see himself as God’s instrument in administering punishment and tries too to use his faith to perform, miraculous healing.

In a series of scenes he is seen in contention with his relaxed but spineless headmaster (Mark Lockyer), the priest (Kriss Dosanjh) and his PE instructor (Brian Lonsdale) but the main contention is between Benjamin and his science teacher Erica White. The representative of rational, scientific reason, she is the only one who tries to meet his challenge. In her efforts to understand him, the better to be able to argue against him, she too turns to studying the bible.

Daniel O’Keefe, making a striking stage debut, and Natalie Radmall-Quirke produce gripping performances as their confrontation ranges over creationism versus evolution, female subservience, chastity, population growth, sexual deviation and escalates with shocking consequences that closely reflect contemporary situations.

Ramin Gray’s production has the whole cast on stage all the time, sometimes wrapped up in their own worlds, sometimes observers. It marks out each episode with a movement of furniture or a piece of the setting. There’s a Brechtian quality that marks each scene as a separate lesson, a reminder of being in a theatre without affecting the sense of situation or the directness of the link with the audience.

Martyr is a troubling play presenting a problem that we all know is present. It is played with no break and packs a great deal into its 90+ minutes. It is a play for our time and here it is given a remarkable production whose seriousness is often leavened with humour.

In a note in the published script, director Gray points out that “martyr” comes from an ancient Greek word meaning “witness” and in its German form of Märtyrer can mean both singular and plural. If you look for the eponymous martyr in fact you will find at least two of them whether in that sense or the more generally used one.

Martyr has already been seen in Bristol and after the Unicorn will tour. Dates so far announced includeThe North Wall, Oxford, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, and Theatre Royal, Plymouth.

Howard Loxton