'Martyr' review or 'Who's at the top of the class?'

Martyr, Marius von Mayenburg (trans Maja Zade)
Unicorn Theatre, 17th September 2015

There’s nothing quite like watching a Unicorn show. Theatre feels different here. At most shows, there is a moment when you can feel the audience settle; they have decided what the show is, where their comfort zone is and how they will react. You don’t get that at the Unicorn, where the audience is packed with teenagers who don’t know what to expect and have no expectations. This is an audience – and a theatre – that refuses to settle. In fact, the audience barely feels like a theatre-audience. Instead, it feels like we are watching real-life in real-time unfold in front of us – and fuck is it scary and intense and frightening and funny and, well, real.

Marius von Mayenburg’s ‘Martyr’ is one hell of a play and Ramin Gray’s production meets it every manic lurch at a time. Neither the play nor production is perfect. The acting styles feel a bit all over the place and the slightly chaotic set (a collection of cut out boards and quirky stand-out props) – also designed by Gray – doesn’t always feel like it’s fusing with the production. But what an experience this is – and what a reaction from the audience. It’s a production that ripples in the most tremendous ways, as we watch the way that intolerance in every form sucks every one into its black and twisted path and brings the audience with it, kicking and screaming and jeering and gasping, every step of the way.

There’s so much going on in this piece (translated with cool restraint by Maja Zade) but the basic story is pretty simple: student Benjamin Sinclair has found God and he isn’t going to let anyone or anything get in the way of his devastatingly unyielding new faith. At first, this materialises merely in Benjamin’s refusal to take part in swimming lessons; he’s disgusted by seeing all that flesh ‘mingling underneath the water’. It just aint Christian. But as Benjamin’s faith takes holds his behaviour at school grows more in more intense and those around him – bewildered by his fervour and in some ways rather entranced, impressed and intimidated by it – get sucked into his manic sphere and begin to lose themselves. Once one person ups the ante, and views life through such an extreme lens,  everyone else is pulled along for the ride – and that sure as hell includes us in the audience.

Gray kicks things off quite lightly and at first it feels we’re watching a fairly moderate play. Just like Benjamin’s teachers, we don’t take his impassioned Biblical recitals too seriously, nor the reactions of those around him. There’s something ominous about Daniel O’Keefe’s Benjamin right from the off – there’s a restless energy about him and his eyes could just about kill you – but he seems fairly harmless. His mother (Flaminia Cinque) is frankly relieved he’s not into drugs, his RS teacher (Kriss Dosanjh ) is keen to sign up a new religious recruit and his guidance counsellor and biology teacher Erica White (Natalie Radmall-Quirke) is anxious to connect with Benjamin and gently nudge him towards a slightly more moderate path. But as Benjamin’s fervour escalates, the characters, the set – and the audience around him – begin to respond in frightening, revealing and deeply complex ways.

During a biology class, Benjamin (played with a brilliant mixture of hostility and vulnerability by O’Keefe) strips off naked in order to prove a point about the absurdity and perversity of his sexual education lesson. The theatre-crowd goes absolutely nuts at this point, with some of the teenagers practically shrivelling up – and some whooping out loud – in confusion and embarrassment. It’s just one of a load of stunningly calibrated scenes that help us realise that Benjamin is not doing this on his own. His beliefs might be forcing him onto the edges of his classes – and society as a whole – but look at what our own responses are doing to Benjamin. His only response to those jeers and that shock and disgust is to start pushing back.

O’Keefe’s electric performance keeps the show balanced on the sharpest of knife edges. There’s an angry swagger about him that is really quite frightening – but he never lets us forget that he is young and unsure of himself and, despite everything, keen to be accepted. He makes us want to believe in him and belittle him at the same time. There is something deeply admirable about his dogged passion and, as the play continues, we begin to understand that Benjamin’s religious fanaticism doesn’t just frighten the teachers around him – it threatens them. Oh to believe in anything so unwaveringly! Just where does all that golden fire disappear to when we ‘grow up’?

This is such a spikey and surprising piece and, perhaps inevitability, there are some scenes that don’t quite fit. Benjamin’s interactions with his mother don’t work brilliantly and, a lot of the time, it feels like Flaminia Cinque is pushing for her punchlines. This is a horrifically funny play, but only when the characters play it straight. Some of the actors – including Mark Lockyer as the sleazy and cowardly headmaster and Farshid Rokey as Benjamin’s adoring disciple – push the comedy a bit too hard. It all feels a bit laboured, which is a shame since this is such an exceptionally free-wheeling and thrillingly spontaneous production.

But these are quibbles and they only slightly slow-down a show that feels like it is rattling, with the breaks off, towards a fearsome and bloody conclusion. By the final few stages, the characters and audience have been whipped up into such a frenzy that it feels like the whole damn theatre might explode. All the rules have been broken and what a scary place that is to be and just look how ugly and reactive we have all become! We giggle nervously at blood and naked bodies, we jeer at moments where we should be thinking much more carefully and we get angry at people who perhaps don’t deserve it. We become products of that small community we have committed to for one night only – the theatre – and realise just how shaky the theatre’s foundations are and how little it takes to bring the whole seemingly solid structure come tumbling down around us.