JOYCE MCMILLAN on MARTYR at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, for The Scotsman, 17.10.15.
4 stars ****
THERE ARE DOZENS of huge, tense questions swirling around in the 90 minutes of Marius von Mayenburg’s 2012 play Martyr, now given its British premiere in this riveting and disturbing co-production by the Actors’ Touring Company of London, and the Unicorn Theatre for young people. Perhaps the central question, though, is whether all human belief-systems need their martyrs, their blood sacrifices, if they are to remain strong in the face of opposition.
So in the early scenes – set around an ordinary modern secondary school – it seems that the would-be “martyr” of the title is Daniel O’Keefe’s Benjamin, a 15-year-old boy who, perhaps unhinged by his own explosive sexual feelings, suddenly seizes on an extreme form of Christian fundamentalism, and starts speaking only in Biblical quotes, of the most misogynistic and homophobic kind.
The change in Benjamin apalls his biology teacher, Erica, who decides to tackle his slide into religious bigotry head-on; but soon discovers that the superficially liberal western culture around her is both heavily complicit with Benjamin’s new patriarchal attitudes, and completely unwilling to defend itself.
Mayenburg’s play sometimes weakens its argument through overstatement, in ways that Ramin Gray’s intense production cannot quite resolve; Mark Lockyer’s headmaster is a caricature of sleazy uselessness, Natalie Radmall-Quirke’s Erica is too obsessional and arrogant to be much of a spokeswoman for a culture of reason. In the end, though, there’s no doubt who is being martyred, in this terrifying play; and it’s difficult not to feel, as she finally stands alone, that a whole long human journey from darkness into enlightenment is being destroyed with her.
Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, final performance tonight.