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MARTYR – Unicorn Theatre, London.

MartyrTeenage rebellion manifests itself in many ways: parents are primed for dealing with issues surrounding drink and drugs… but not religion. In Martyr, When Benjamin Sinclair develops an unhealthy obsession for a sacred text and starts making increasingly Puritanical demands on his mother and school, the responsible adults in his life suddenly find themselves out of their depth in the face of his self-imposed indoctrination. Originally written in German by Marius von Mayenburg, this translation by Maja Zade is presented by the Actors Touring Company (a group who use Theatre “to examine the world around us”). Martyr explores the grey area between standing up for your beliefs and dogmatic fixation, but it does feel as if it has tried to tackle too much.

On an open set comprised of various boxy levels and rooms (cleverly designed by director Ramin Gray), the cast are neatly slotted in amongst tables, chairs and benches, remaining on stage the entire time. Whilst it may look a bit jumbled and abstract, it allows quick transitions between the many short scenes and makes the most of the depth of the space in the Unicorn Theatre. Scenes are lightly underscored with the occasional bit of music, including what sounded like a very apt instrumental bit of Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit.

Daniel O’Keefe is a thoroughly obstreperous and volatile as Benjamin, his every word punctuated with malevolent bile; He visibly revels in the knowledge that the school is obliged to respect all religious beliefs, even a very medieval approach to the Bible, much to the chagrin of his teachers. Farshid Rokey plays the foil as the impressionable and gawky George Hansen: a prime example of how easily the vulnerable can be influenced by those they idolise. Their scenes together strike a perfect balance between comedy and tragedy, as George so willingly becomes a disciple without a thought for the ramifications of his actions. Jessye Romeo is effortlessly feline as their classmate Lydia, deliberately taunting Benjamin with everything he would deny himself.

Between Benjamin’s exasperated no-nonsense mother, Ingrid (Flaminia Cinque) and the many teachers, there is much hand-wringing over who’s responsible, who should deal with it, and how. We get a real feel for the humdrum staff-room politics as presented by Mark Lockyer as a skin-crawlingly lecherous Headmaster, Brian Lonsdale as a no-hoper PE teacher with ideas above his station, and the object of both their affections, Natalie Radmall-Quirke, the impassioned and aggravated science teacher, fighting against a tide of  bureaucracy. Very few of the characters are that likeable, but Radmall-Quirke gives a magnetic performance, particularly as her words and actions are twisted against her at the end, leading to a gruesome final denouement. Exuding a devastating Zen-like calm is the Vicar Dexter Menrath (Kriss Dosanjh) who everything he can to guide Benjamin more towards a more compassionate approach.

While the play may have had a nudity-warning in the pre-show literature, I don’t think anyone was quite ready for it in the given context – it certainly provoked a very vocal reaction from the predominantly young audience. Full-frontal is often employed by writers or directors for comedy value, but so rarely as something dangerous or malicious. It is a testament to the actor in question that they can hold total command of the scene whilst in their birthday suit, but without it ever feeling gratuitous. By contrast, what feels very out of place is the faux violence, with face slaps from across the room.

While the play does fearlessly scrutinise what it is to devote your life (and even death) to a cause you believe in, it seems to want to address a few too many issues all at the same time: free speech, old faith, new faith, scepticism, feminism, sexism, fidelity, authority, and the mid-life crisis to name a few. By the end, there are a bewildering number of avenues in play, all tied up rather awkwardly in the final scene in a way which feels a little incoherent. While it does spin the concept of martyrdom rather cleverly on its head and asks some very pertinent questions, it does seem as if it’s tried to encompass too many of the issues of the 21st century into its 90-minute running time.

An urgent and thought-provoking production with some captivating performances, but a mishmash of ideas and beliefs which need further taming.

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Reviewed 17/09/2015

By Gail Bishop

15th September – 10th October 2015
Unicorn Theatre, London SE1 2HZ.


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