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A bold tale of an unfamiliar kind of radicalisation in the classroom from German playwright Marius von Mayenburg
Dropping like a mind-bomb on its teenage audience, Marius von Mayenburg’s story of an unfamiliar kind of radicalisation is an almost perfect show for young people, and an encapsulation of the Unicorn’s vital and daring spirit. Bold and unforgiving, it addresses issues of religious extremism, broken gender politics and the insidious creep of anti-intellectualism into the classroom.
Daniel O’Keefe plays gawky loner Benjamin, who finds the Bible holds the answers and the certainties missing from his confused, hate-filled pubescent world. His plight is obvious – his harried mother works nights to scrape by; girls his age seem unattainable, porn-filtered objects of lust; his purposeless life is turning in on itself. But as Benjamin turns firebrand, then zealot, his convictions begin to harden into intolerance, and eventually violence.
His teacher Erica tries to take on this growing madness, but finds herself shackled by a system that finds scraps of Benjamin’s dogma palliative to its prudery and misogyny, and cannot recognise extremism until it has mushroomed to vicious proportions.
Ramin Gray’s production, co-produced by the Actors Touring Company and the Unicorn, blends a casual workshop aesthetic – boards of rough plywood and a cast that lounge in unused corners of the stage – with moments of unbearable tension and violence.
It’s a fearless, fighty and very timely piece from Mayenburg, though its thinking becomes less lucid and its world less credible and coherent as it moves towards its climax. It certainly lacks the real world grounding of Vivienne Franzmann’s similarly caustic classroom drama ‘Mogadishu’. But it knows its audience and it’s all too ready to kick the shit out of them.
Equally cautious of the trap of militant atheism, it’s nonetheless a furiously secular play: casting ignorance, fear and repression into a single, entangled obscenity and spitting it out onto the stage. In a world all too ready to condemn the Koran, ‘Martyr’ hangs the Bible out to dry. Everyone under the age of sixteen should see it. They might never be the same again.
By Stewart Pringle