Most of us attending the theatre regularly probably identify ourselves as liberal, most likely of the quiet variety. We read the Guardian, buy organic when we can, may have joined the Labour party to cast a vote for Jeremy Corbyn and believe in the right of free speech for all. But in allowing freedom of speech has our fundamentally secular Western world gone too far in letting extremists set the agenda? This is the fundamental question at the heart of Marius von Mayenburg’s angry new play of ideas Martyr. His spleen is turned on those who use religion as a valid exercise in attempting to overthrow democratic Western agendas. He also sets his crosshairs firmly on those who stand back and meekly allow this to happen, whether through fear, indifference or a misguided belief in the rights of all to be able to set their own rules.
It all begins with a sick note. A reason needed for Benjamin not to attend his swimming classes. Religion is plucked out of the air, the perfect excuse that no one can quibble with. It escalates quickly: a naked protest against the teaching of homosexual acts in sex education class; a nailing of a cross up onto the walls to allow him to turn his school into a place of worship; a demand that evolution should be no longer taught as it goes against the belief of creationism, No one is prepared to challenge as Benjamin turns more fervent, the headmaster bemused, another teacher indifferent, the mother perplexed believing it’s just a phase. Only Natalie Radmall-Quirke’s science teacher is prepared to challenge and engage Benjamin in debate regarding his ever developing extremism. But as he turns darker will she be able to escape unharmed or will she find herself a martyr for her own cause, just like he is prepared to be for his.
There’s a large elephant in the room that von Mayenburg’s paly, clinically translated by Maja Zade, wisely doesn’t address directly. By choosing Christianity, a religion that hasn’t shed blood in earnest for centuries, the arguments are allowed time to breathe without resorting to controversial flash points. He’s firmly on the side of rationalists but he does given at least some credence to some of the ideas of those who choose to martyr themselves for the cause. The characters, much like Brechts, are bodies housing ideas and debates rather than fully fleshed characters, but what we lack in emotional connectedness is more than made up for in barnstorming debate. He occasionally drops the ball, poor Jessye Romeo gets little more to grab onto then to be a teenage lust object, flashing her breasts and observing how no man she has ever met hasn’t wanted to touch her. Every other character has their point and function. This character thuds with a heavy clang to the ground. It’s uncomfortable in a production that in most other ways gets it right.
Ramin Gray’s production features technically superb work, the actors detached and one step removed, it takes a few minutes to adjust but makes perfect sense, allowing us to focus on the ideas rather than the emotional response. Daniel O’Keefe is superb as Benjamim, terrifying in his zealotry before revealing towards the end a teenage boy just as lost, confused and frightened as any other. Radmall Quirke’s adversary is just as great as a modern day secular saint driven to extreme lengths to make the rational heard.
If the smaller moments are lost in the grandeur of the Bristol Old Vic main house, this should be solved with its move to the Unicorn Theatre’s smaller space. It’s a play buzzing with important ideas and messages. It’s recommended viewing for all.