Review: Martyr, Unicorn Theatre

“I have a normal boy with behavioural problems”

There’s no doubting that the fight against fanaticism is a vital one but what Marius von Mayenburg’s play Martyr picks up on is that there is very little consensus on how to deal with it effectively. And in using fundamentalist Christianity as his hook, he subverts much of how we see radicalism. So it’s an ideal choice for Ramin Gray and the Actors Touring Company to follow up their hit production of The Events with this run at the Unicorn prior to a short UK tour.

Born-again Christian Benjamin is becoming increasingly disruptive at school – unwilling to join in swimming lessons as they’re mixed-sex and decrying classmates’ homosexuality and promiscuity – leaving the adults in his life unsure what to do. His mother and teachers struggle to understand but one teacher, Miss White from his Biology class, opts to tackle him head on, unprepared for the consequences of such an approach.

It’s heavy stuff, especially since it is aimed at teenagers, but it has a strong impact – especially on the youthfully skewed audience I saw it with – as Benjamin’s zeal blinds him to the effects he’s having on those around him. And Maja Zade’s skilful translation leaves us in no doubt that so much of this kind of fanaticism comes from a highly selective reading of a chosen text, in this case the Bible, its teachings distorted to fit the purpose.

Gray secures strong performances from his cast – Daniel O’Keefe and Natalie Radmall-Quirke make powerful adversaries as the equally determined Benjamin and Miss White, both fierce in their commitment, and matched well by Flaminia Cinque as his mother. But it is the searching questions of the production that linger most in the mind – how far will you go for what you believe? How far should you go? von Mayenburg doesn’t pretend there’s any easy answers but he sure makes you think about ‘em. 

Running time: 95 minutes (without interval)
Booking until 10th October then touring to North Wall, Oxford; Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh; and Drum Theatre, Plymouth

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