Pros: Clear and interesting parallels with real life. Plenty of laughs.
Cons: Busy and overcomplicated staging.
“If somebody says something you don’t like, much the best thing is….to take issue with them, to explain why they’re wrong, to ensure that they change their mind…” So said the UK’s independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, on the day when I went to see Martyr at the Unicorn Theatre. It seemed to me that Marius von Mayenburg’s play, albeit satirical, took a much more ambivalent view.
Benjamin is a teenage schoolboy who has found religion, and whose strict adherence to the more conservative pronouncements of the Bible is making him confrontational and provocative. It is never quite clear whether this religious zeal is a symptom of teenage angst or mental illness, but there is little doubt that it has everything to do with rebellion, and very little to do with peace, love or understanding.
Just as world leaders have struggled to formulate a coherent response to Islamic fundamentalism, so the members of Benjamin’s community respond to him in varied and contradictory ways, all of which serve only to entrench his position. Some try to engage him on theological grounds, some appeal to his humanity, some want to focus only on the behaviour, not on the cause, and others simply wish to appease him. The play asks us to question what fundamentalism looks like, and suggests that any unshakeable conviction is a form of fundamentalism if it happens not to be our own.
Young actor Daniel O’Keefe is excellent as Benjamin, bringing out all the character’s insecurity, bravado and comedy value, while Jessye Romeo and Farshid Rokey give strong support as fellow pupils. The older actors do a fine job, but the play’s adult characters are less sympathetic and less convincingly drawn than the younger characters. They are somewhat caricatured – the fool in power, the harried single mother, the earnest do-gooder – and in that sense it is easy to see why Benjamin might have turned elsewhere for authority.
Martyr raises loads of interesting questions, and no doubt the several school groups in the audience had a lively classroom discussion the next day. Indeed, the production feels like it is aimed very squarely at this audience, with shocks at regular intervals to keep everyone awake, including nudity, snogging and carrots in condoms. The staging also is designed to ensure that there is always something to look at; the cast of eight are on stage throughout, and that stage is crammed with stuff – cups, suitcase, chairs, tables, paddling pool – some of which is only fleetingly necessary.
This is a very entertaining and timely production from Actors Touring Company, of a play that despite its many laughs, presents a fairly bleak view of society and the phenomenon of radicalisation. On the one hand it is subtle and sensitive, never trying to pinpoint a single cause of Benjamin’s radicalisation, and presenting a very recognisable microcosm of wider society. On the other hand it often verges on farce with, for example, a school that is implausibly mismanaged and a rapid of sequence of preposterous events in the final scenes. Whilst it certainly does not suggest any antidote to radicalisation, it does seem to imply, rather cynically, that to engage with it intellectually, or try to counter it with reason and science, is a fool’s game.
Author: Marius von Mayenburg, translated by Maja Zade
Director: Ramin Gray
Produced by: Unicorn & Actors Touring Company
Box office: 020 7645 0560
Booking link: https://www.unicorntheatre.com
Booking Until: 10th October 2015