Review: Martyr

by Lynn on January 16, 2023

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at the AKI Studio, Daniels Spectrum, Toronto, Ont. Plays until Jan. 29, 2023.

Written by Marius von Mayenburg

Translated by Maja Zade

Directed by Rob Kempson

Set and costumes by Jackie Chau

Lighting by Michelle Ramsay

Sound by James Dallas Smith

Cast: Ryan Allen

Aviva Armour-Ostroff

Charlotte Dennis

Deborah Drakeford

Ryan Hollyman

Richard Lee

Adriano Reis

Nabil Traboulsi

This is a challenging, fascinating, frustrating play that seems to tick all the boxes for being timely and woke: a student is mired in religious fundamentalism; the teachers, the head master and the Vicar are mainly clueless or fearful on how to deal with it. Too often the playwright stacks the play in such a way that it’s unbalanced and obvious. Characters are one dimensional and too often dim, sexist or inept. The cast is valiant and committed.  

The Story. Benjamin Sinclair is a young teenager who refuses to swim in a co-ed class. His mother Ingrid Sinclair demands to know what his problem is: drugs, body image? He denies both. He has discovered God and has become devoted to the writings in The Bible (New Testament), especially the teachings of Jesus. Benjamin finds that the girls in their bikinis are too provocative and their presence goes against the teachings in the Bible on purity.

His mother is unable to deal with Benjamin’s zealotry, as is the Vicar who teaches his religious class and the Head Master who brushes off Benjamin’s fervor. His biology teacher, Erica White, attempts to deal with Benjamin directly but she too is stymied. Benjamin finds some understanding with his classmate George who is slightly disabled. Benjamin is given a perfect opportunity to use his religious fervor in trying to cure the reason for George’s limp. Not surprisingly, the attempted cure fails.

The Production. Jackie Chau has designed a set of a bare raised rectangular black platform in the middle of the space. The audience sits on either side of it, facing each other. The cast of eight divide themselves and sit on either side of the other ends of the raised platform in orange chairs. Props are beside some chairs to be carried on stage and off.

At the top of the production, Benjamin (Nabil Traboulsi) sits in a chair while his concerned, frustrated mother Ingrid (Deborah Drakeford) stands in front of him, demanding to know what has gotten into him, that he refuses to participate in the swim class. Benjamin is insulted that she asks if he’s on drugs or ashamed of his body. Soon after this he begins to quote the Bible. With every comment from Ingrid, Benjamin has a line from the Bible that justifies his position and even challenges hers. Through the Bible Benjamin accuses his mother of adultery because she is divorced. Never mind that her husband left her and the family, for Benjamin the Bible is the only frame of reference. He believes everything in it, at least the New Testament, and takes everything at face value. There is no nuance or subtext in Benjamin’s thinking.

Right from the get-go director Rob Kempson establishes the intense give and take of Benjamin and his mother Ingrid in the compelling performances of Nabil Traboulsi as Benjamin and Deborah Drakeford as his mother Ingrid. As Benjamin, Nabil Traboulsi is focused and compelling. Benjamin considers himself pure and the Bible will lead him on the path to righteousness, while those around him are going to hell. Benjamin knows the Bible so well that nothing any adult says to him trips him up. He is the perfect zealot. As his mother Ingrid, Deborah Drakeford is that wonderful mix of a single parent who is exhausted from work—she is working the night shift one assumes as a nurse—and frustrated with the mysterious antics of her pubescent teenage son. She does not know how to deal with this new-found religion of her kid and it seems neither does any adult around him.

The Head Master, Willy Belford (Ryan Allen) is busy deflecting any responsibility in dealing with the issue. He spends a lot of his time commenting on the appealing appearance of Erica White (Aviva Armour-Ostroff), the biology teacher. He asks if she has done anything different to her hair; is she wearing perfume; he likes her ensemble. At various times in such dialogue it is wonderful hearing gasps of disbelief in the audience. Almost nothing is really dealt with seriously by this light-weight Head Master.

One would expect the Vicar Dexter Menrath (Ryan Hollyman) to be able to seriously debate the Bible and context with Benjamin, but that’s not the case in the play. Ryan Hollyman plays the Vicar with a wonderful confused accommodation, trying to comfort and ease Benjamin instead of reasoning with him.

Initially only Lydia Weber (Charlotte Dennis), a classmate of Benjamin, has the confidence to challenge him. Lydia is a young teenage girl in tune with the power of her budding sexuality and sensuality when it comes to Benjamin. Lydia’s skirt is short and her blouse is form-fitting. She stares him down, by coming close to him. She quietly, seductively makes Benjamin touch her—which we have learned earlier, is a no-no in his rigid world.  As Lydia, Charlotte Dennis is fearless. She pins Benjamin with a look, daring him to look away. And yet she is also a kid who wants to go for ice cream when she finished toying with him. Terrific performance from Charlotte Dennis. Designer Jackie Chau has added a note of costume wit for Lydia by giving her red laces for her brown brogues.

It is natural that both Benjamin and George (Adriano Reis), both misfits, would become friends. Benjamin fancies himself George’s spiritual leader in a sense. George would like a closer, more personal relationship with Benjamin. Adriano Reis, as George, is shy, tentative and gradually gets the confidence to make a move, that is of course repelled.

As the play progresses Benjamin’s zealotry intensifies when he is challenged by his biology teacher, Erica White. She takes it upon herself to study the bible to present a reasoned adult response to Benjamin. As Erica White, Aviva Armour-Ostroff gives a blazing performance of an adult who recognizes how dangerous Benjamin’s religious fervor is. When she offers a quote from the Bible that shoots down a comment he has quoted, he answers by saying the devil is speaking through her. As relationships spiral out of control—Erica’s partner Marcus (Richard Lee) offers no support, Erica takes drastic measures to remain in place and fight for her position.

Marius von Mayenburg has written a fascinating yet frustrating and troubling play. It’s fascinating because it deals with the dangers of religious fervor; a weak educational system that is afraid to solve difficult problems; developing sensuality; parental frustration; and  inappropriate sexual language in the work-place, among others.

But it’s frustrating because von Mayenburg, for the most part, has underwritten the characters. Not one adult, not even the Vicar, seems to know how to deal in any way with Benjamin’s zealotry. He stacks the deck against the adults by creating them as weak, witless for the most part, and totally without intellectual competence except for Erica White.

Benjamin has no life before that first scene. Where did this love of the Bible come from? What kind of a life did he have before that? We don’t know because von Mayenburg doesn’t say.  

Von Mayenburg teases by looking like he will go deeper in the play, then pulls back. When Benjamin plants a dangerous seed in George’s brain by saying Erica White is Jewish (there is no proof in the play) and the Jews were the enemy of Jesus and they have to stop her, George accuses Benjamin of being a Nazi. This looks promising, that at last Benjamin’s blinkered attitudes will be properly challenged. But von Mayenburg pulls back and doesn’t explore that idea. Frustrating.

But in spite of the play’s frustration, Rob Kempson and his gifted cast, have created a thought-provoking production. It’s beautifully directed, the pacing is almost fluid in it’s flow from scene to scene. Almost before one scene ends, the next scene flows into it, with balletic transitions. Relationships between characters are clearly established. The commitment of this cast to the work is never in doubt. Their gentle grip on the audience’s attention never lets them waiver.

Comment. As usual, ARC has produced a compelling production of a challenging play. This is its Canadian premiere.  Martyr first opened at the Schaubűhne Theatre, Berlin in 2012. It had its English premier in 2015 at the Unicorn Theatre in London, Eng, a theatre for young people. As I said the play is fascinating and frustrating, in that the playwright seems to hold back in making the play and its arguments balanced. That said, it will generate a lot of discussion, it will rankle and unsettle the viewer, as challenging theatre does and therefore must, MUST be seen to draw your own opinion. I have faith that you will.  

Produced by ARC.

Opened: Jan. 14, 2023.

Closes: Jan. 29, 2023.

Running Time: 90 minutes (no intermission)

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