Review by Flossie Waite
Martyr’s set is treated with increasing disregard until the final, unnerving scene, when whole elements are smashed out of what was assumed to be the playing space, a chair connecting with an audience member’s foot (don’t worry, they were fine). There’s an exhilarating lack of respect for boundaries and expectations in this production, and consequently a deepening dread as it becomes clear that anything could happen – particularly worrying as the play hurtles towards its surprising (and sickening) conclusion. This intense, distressing exploration of teenager Benjamin’s radicalisation is a brave choice from Unicorn Theatre.
Benjamin’s beliefs start with a refusal to attend swimming lessons with girls in bikinis, before stalking down a dangerous path towards anti-semitism and violence. As those around him struggle to take what’s happening seriously, one teacher, Erica White (Natalie Radman-Quirke), tries desperately to understand, before changing tack in an attempt to beat him at his own game. Marius von Mayenburg’s play casts Benjamin as a Christian, pointing to the potential for all religion to lead to extremist behaviour. As Erica reads the Bible, picking out counter-quotes, she proves how open it is to any interpretation the reader is looking for: “Jesus isn’t intolerant, Jesus is gay!” When she later stands accused of becoming as passionately zealous about atheism, it’s clear that Martyr holds no easy answers.
There is definite humour that comes from a teenage boy thinking he’s a direct link to God – pulling on his friend’s leg whilst screaming “GROW!!!” in an amateur healing ritual, or delivering with all sincerity lines like, “Don’t worry about whether your fingers smell. Worry about whether your soul smells.” Laughter seems a comfort at first, but any humour feels increasingly depraved in the face of Daniel O’Keefe’s chilling performance as Benjamin.
What’s most alarming is the twisted logic that could be so convincing if you didn’t know better. Benjamin gains a devoted disciple, superbly portrayed by Farshid Rokey, and even adults flounder against Benjamin’s reasoning. Martyr elicits a physical reaction: both an aching brain and a churning stomach.
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