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Review of Marius von Mayenburg’s Martyr at the Unicorn Theatre

Martyr at Unicorn Theatre, Daniel O'Keefe as Benjamin Sinclair, Natalie Radmall-Quirke as Erica White and Mark Lockyer as Willy Belford, ATC
Daniel O’Keefe as Benjamin Sinclair, Natalie Radmall-Quirke as Erica White and Mark Lockyer as Willy Belford
Photo by Stephen Cummiskey

When the many secondary school pupils present at Martyr openly gasp, call out and loudly complain during a performance, this could be interpreted as either the play being substandard, or a particular group of youngsters who don’t really want to be there, but are there because their school says they must attend; the sort of students who would rather be on a basketball court or football pitch, or at home playing computer games, than sat in a darkened auditorium watching a play grappling with religious fundamentalism.

In fact, it is neither. It is because Martyr is so provocative that it successfully excites the audience, who therefore respond accordingly. It’s not pantomime, mind you: occasionally the cast find themselves pausing, waiting for the vocal reactions to simmer down, so the dialogue can proceed. It was slightly uncomfortable for me, at least to begin with, being used to much quieter theatre audiences, but then again this was always going to be a challenging evening. Especially when another play, Homegrown, exploring similar themes, was cancelled before its first preview, because its producers felt the show wasn’t good enough for the paying public, though some of the cast took to social media to express disappointment.

Benjamin Sinclair (Daniel O’Keefe), a schoolboy, has begun reading a modern translation of the Bible. Over time, he is able to quote extensively (if selectively) from it. It’s not explained how or why he started reading the Bible, but his passion for righteousness finds him constantly at odds with his mother, Ingrid (Flaminia Cinque) as well as his school teachers and classmates. His behaviour is increasingly erratic, but any attempts, even by the Vicar (Kriss Dosanjh), who teaches “RS” (it’s Religious Studies at this school, rather than Religious Education), at channelling Benjamin’s evangelical zeal into something positive are dismissed and rebuffed.

Benjamin favours the passages of Scripture that fit in with his anger at the state of modern society; he denounces public displays of flesh, particularly in swimming baths, with the same sort of determined confidence that Margaret Thatcher used to denounce socialism. It is nothing new, fundamentally (so to speak) – for instance, Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans rallied against absolutely anything that didn’t come up to their exacting standards.

O’Keefe’s Benjamin, who barely leaves the stage, is remarkably compelling and uncompromising in the leading role. We can never quite tell how far up-and-coming actors will end up, but I will stick my neck out and predict a fine career for this young man, who graduated from RADA just this summer. It’s nothing short of remarkable that anyone can quote verse after verse of fire, brimstone, severely anti-gay sentiments and the eternal conscious torment of the damned, and still get a standing ovation at curtain call.

As I say, the lack of backstory for Benjamin leaves it difficult for the audience to grasp whether this is a loner schoolboy finding himself or something much deeper with potential fatal consequences. What does become clear is that his new found faith is not completely unshakeable, nor is it entirely pure: seeing his ‘guidance teacher’ Ms White (Natalie Radmall-Quirke) as the spawn of Satan, he exaggerates and spins a story, like a consummate politician, that is believed by the Headmaster (Mark Lockyer) and virtually everyone else, much to White’s detriment.

The amount of (fake) blood on stage was lavish or unnecessary, dependent on one’s disposition, and perhaps if Benjamin wasn’t so vehement about dressing decently, seeing a completely naked man on a London stage wouldn’t have been quite so shocking. Some of the other roles, sadly, are almost caricatures at worst, and stereotypes at best. Marcus Dixon (Brian Lonsdale) is the Physical Education teacher for whom the Gospel According To Benjamin Sinclair is too intellectual for him to handle, and Lockyer’s Headmaster is the somewhat likeable but completely tactless figurehead.

Jessye Romeo as Lydia Weber in Martyr - Photo by Stephen Cummiskey
Jessye Romeo as Lydia Weber
Photo by Stephen Cummiskey

The hard-hitting subject matter is mercifully laced with some humour, largely courtesy of the student with differing leg lengths, George Hansen (Farshid Rokey), and the attractive if skanky Lydia Weber (Jessye Romeo): without them this piece would definitely have required an interval (perhaps two!) for the audience to recover from the sheer intensity of Benjamin’s fundamentalism. Despite the show’s lack of originality – you can’t get more unoriginal than entire passages from the Bible being quoted – it does not leave everything neatly tidied up by the end, and probably raises more questions than it answers. Is it, as Ingrid asserted, the school’s responsibility to ensure young Benjamin is pastorally sound? Is it she as the parent who should take control? How much control can she exercise if she is a single parent working night shifts? Is it actually up to Benjamin – his life, therefore his choice?

Like Benjamin, this play does not do things by halves. One of the most unsubtle plays I have come across over the years, Martyr is unrelentingly uncomfortable. Benjamin’s anti-Semitic remarks and comments on the Nazi regime, I would have thought, are likely to have deeper impact in the play’s original German version. That aside, it’s a masterly piece of theatre, which left me wanting more.
4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

UK PREMIERE
MARTYR
By Marius von Maybenburg
Directed by Ramin Gray
UNICORN THEATRE
https://www.unicorntheatre.com/
September 16th to October 10th 2015
SUITABLE FOR 15 YEARS OLD & OVER
CONTAINS SOME STRONG LANGUAGE AND NUDITY
Approx 1 hour 40 minutes

Martyr
By Marius von Mayenburg
Translated by Maja Zade
Directed by Ramin Gray
Performed by: Flaminia Cinque, Kriss Dosanjh, Mark Lockyer, Brian Lonsdale, Daniel O’Keefe, Farshid Rokey, Jessye Romeo, Natalie Radmall-Quirke

Martyr | Unicorn Theatre London | 15 Sep – 10 Oct 2015

Actors Touring Company and Unicorn join up to present UK premiere of Marious von Mayenburg’s study of religious radicalisation in the classroom.

HOW FAR WILL YOU GO FOR WHAT YOU BELIEVE?
Benjamin won’t do swimming at school. His mum thinks he’s on drugs or has body issues. But Benjamin has found God and mixed-sex swimming lessons offend him. So begins the teenager’s journey towards religious extremism. The school wishes to accommodate all faiths but when will they recognise the threat that his religious belief has on their own liberal ethos? As Benjamin terrorises the staff and fellow students alike, only one teacher is prepared to take a stand. How far is she willing to go and what will she risk to defend her own deeply held convictions?

Veering from the humorous to the sinister and ultimately to the shocking, Martyr is a provocative and urgent exploration of the clash between fundamentalism and tolerance in Western democracy. This is a play that considers how far we should go in accommodating another’s faith and when it is right to take a stand for our own opposing values.

Bringing together audiences both young and old, this autumn Actors Touring Company, the UK’s leading producer of international contemporary theatre is co-producing with Unicorn, the UK’s principle professional theatre company for young audiences to present a drama of our times by Germany’s leading playwright Marius Von Mayenburg.

Artistic director of Actors Touring Company and director of Martyr, Ramin Gray says:- “If the defining event of our time is the clash between the fundamentalist and liberal perspective, then Martyr is the play for today. If theatre can play a useful role in creating a space for the important conversations to take place, then Martyr is the play for today. If theatre not only reflects but interrogates our social structures and values through humour, provocation and conflict, then Martyr is the play for today.

Friday 18th September 2015

Author

  • Neil Cheesman

    First becoming involved in an online theatre business in 2005 and launching londontheatre1.com in September 2013. Neil writes reviews and news articles, and has interviewed over 150 actors and actresses from the West End, Broadway, film, television, and theatre. Follow Neil on Twitter @LondonTheatre1

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