In the current political climate, what with ISIS, the Israeli-Palestine conflict and our British lack of a spiritual identity, it is impossible to escape religious fundamentalism. We read it in the papers, watch it on the news, hear it on the radio. We consume it like entertainment, something to be watched from afar, feared. It is difficult for us “moderate westerners” (or not so moderate, as the case may be) to believe that anyone, anywhere could believe in and love so strongly in a man in the sky and some words in a book. But they do – and we all have the capacity to do so. Marius von Mayenburg’s brilliant new play, which premiered in Berlin in 2012, explores what it is that makes a person lurch towards extremism, and comes up with some brilliant, unexpected answers.
Martyr follows a teenage boy named Benjamin. The play begins with a conflict with his mother over swimming lessons – why wont he go? Is it drugs, she asks? Body dysmorphia? Uncontrollable erections? No, Benjamin has found God, and scantily clad young women offend him. That is, the God of the Bible, not Allah. Yes, in an incredibly refreshing twist (especially given what the UK press enjoy focusing on) Benjamin is a Christian extremist, not a Muslim one. Mayenburg uses this clever curveball to demonstrate how close we all are to being pushed over the edge. Despite the crisis in the middle east and the western imperialism that has encouraged so many to veer to the far right in the Middle East, our society is equally vulnerable, and for entirely different reasons. The play goes on to explore Benjamin’s descent into what could be called madness – anti-semitism, homophobia, sexism that turns into a quest to crucify one female teacher. One female science teacher, to be precise. Indeed, Martyr seems to centre on the ever important question : how linked are science and religion? And just how soon should we start up a dialogue between the two? Sharpish, Mayenburg suggests.
One of the best things about the play is its refusal to give a clearly defined, single answer. In the real world, the correct answers are ambiguous, and don’t just lead one way. Daniel O’Keefe is superb as the confused Benjamin, searching for an identity in the face of his parent’s divorce and the apathy of his peers. Is he gay or straight? He flirts with both, sharing intimate moments that leave him filled with self-loathing with both Lydia (Jessye Romeo) and George (Farshid Rokey), suggesting that he is something in between. Does he hate women? He seems to love his mother in his way (Flaminia Cinque) but to hate his Biology teacher, Miss White (Natalie Radmall-Quirke, who steals the other half of the show). Perhaps the fundamentalist in him simply hates the modern thought she represents. Radmall-Quirke’s calmly rational Darwinism gradually unravels throughout Martyr, her obsession with Benjamin and what he represents leaving her a shell of what she once was – a kind of scientific extremist. In a sense, Marius von Mayenburg is perhaps advocating a middle road – science and religion should go hand in hand, or else the fighting will ensue in chaos, as it does in the bloody finale.
The Unicorn Theatre have chosen to produce an intelligent, thought provoking show, that totally rejects modern cliches and asks some difficult questions. If you want to think about what the answers could be, catch it whilst you can. Ends 10th October.