Martyrs, an adaptation of Marius von Mayenburg’s play, is another brilliant production from TR Warszawa. It touches upon a rather urgent issue of religious fundamentalism which in many forms is more and more visible across Europe. Grzegorz Jarzyna (director) and Roman Pawłowski (dramaturge) made some changes to the original – main character is portrayed as a girl, however they do not significantly interfere with the text. The audience is presented, as in Mayenburg previous works, with an attempt to confront and explore the scope of mutual human brutality. Although this time they are left with rather burning questions. What limits are there to tolerance? What is fundamentalism and how does it begin? Is religion a threat to a modern, pluralist society?
The play starts rather innocently as teenage Lidka decides not to go to a swimming lesson. When asked for explanation, she speaks of religious reasons. She finds it morally questionable that girls and boys are mixed together. Moreover, Lidka is offended by skimpy swimming costumes worn by some of her classmates. Right from the first, seemingly relaxed, conversation between father and daughter, you can feel the rising tension and teenage rebellion brewing under the surface. In her performance Justyna Wasilewska (Lidka) tries to show vulnerability and confusion connected with puberty. In a daring yet honest way, she plays a girl who embraces religious fundamentalism trying to make sense of world that scares her. She is disappointed with her passive father and politically correct teachers, which is why Lidka so desperately longs for lasting principles and clear boundaries in her life. Constantly quoted passages from the Bible become not only solution to her problems, but also a powerful weapon. Wasilewska’s portrayal of Lidka’s two sides – a charismatic religious radical and a fragile teenage girl is simply outstanding. Her performance is extremely passionate and raw. Wasilewska immediately gathers all the attention as she pulls the audience into her own spiritual world. She is certainly the strongest member of the cast.
The characters around Lidka seem not interested in the girl and her radical approach to faith. Even the priest does not care about her as an individual willing to use her piousness for his own benefit. The only person who tries to help and understand Lidka is a biology teacher Hania (Aleksandra Konieczna) who can see how dangerous the situation has become. In order to get trough to the girl she immerses herself into the Bible. Paradoxically Hania becomes a sort of fanatic herself trying to prove that Lidka’s wrong and God does not exist. Konieczna’s performance is acceptable but her potential rather underused. However, Cezary Kosiński as Lidka’s father is certainly worth mentioning. His calm and reserved performance becomes rather striking when juxtaposed with Wasilewska’s whirlwind of emotions.
What is interesting, the director does not try to demonize or sneer at the notion of faith. Despite Lidka’s fanaticism, Jarzyna does not judge, but shows surprising respect when it comes to spiritual nature of her experiences. There is no place for mocking or laughter during the prayer scenes. Her devotion and zeal confronts banality and indifference of today’s world. Jarzyna is in a way silently praising Lidka for her passion and war waged against apathy as the performance attacks today’s politically correct society.
When it comes to the visual aspect of the performance, simplicity is the key. Martyrs do not dazzle with lavish set design or spectacular special effects. The play might surprise with its modesty and reserve. Monika Pormale (stage designer) incorporates Robert Mleczko’s looped projections as a background. As play progresses, they are slowly changing from realistic to more and more deformed. They might be seen as visions of Lidka’s enslaved mind. One of the more arresting visual ideas is combining projections with a shadow play which emphasizes mystical ambience during Lidka’s fervent monologues. Moreover, Pormale stays true to “less is more” approach filling an empty stage with few chairs, tables and a bed depending on the scene. This lack of elaborate set design is carefully thought out as the director forces the audience to focus on the story and its spiritual values rather than futility of the material world.
Martyrs is a play which certainly leaves a lasting impression on the audience. It is both psychotherapy and theatrical exorcism. Jarzyna shows how easily one can turn to religious fundamentalism in times of liberalism and “tolerance”. In the same time there is no judgment implied, there is no right or wrong. The audience is presented a conflict of two different worlds and two different ideas. That is why the production both surprises and tires. It brings no clear answer but leaves a bitter, rather unsettling aftertaste.