Theatre review: Martyr
- Gareth K Vile
- 6 October 2015
The Rumble in the Concrete Jungle: Religion gets fundamental
Aimed at older teenagers and adults, the Actors Touring Company production of Martyr explores the problems of extremism within a school, and presents a dramatic argument against the radicalisation of young people without condemning religion or rejecting scientific authority.
Marius von Mayenburg's script – translated by Maja Zade with a poetic flair – avoids the easy answers: the protagonist has been tempted by fundamentalist Christianity rather than Islam, and his antagonist, a female biology teacher, is caught up in her own neurotic quest to be right. While the pupil is inevitably using religion to fight off his own sexual confusion, the development of the conflict between belief and science is complicated by an overly supportive mother and a liberal headteacher, who is not above sexist asides and offers little support to his crusading colleague.
Working more as an introduction to the wider debate than a focussed analysis, Martyr does not engage with the potential theological problems posed by the acceptance of the Bible as a literal authority, nor detach the scientific method from its individual supporters. At times, each character is reduced to a cypher for a position (adolescent sexual confusion, victimhood, liberal religion and so on). While the action is set in a wider context, the drama ignores nuanced understanding of science and religion – at one point, the meaning of 'theory' as opposed to 'hypothesis' is conflated, and the source of the pupil's religious fervour is barely recognised.
Despite a brutal finale, the debate is not resolved. Both sides make their claims, and never reach agreement: the discussion is presented coolly, encouraging further conversation about the relative moralities on display. And this is the great strength of Ramin Gray's direction. In revealing the personal anxieties of the characters, he exposes the absence of an absolute truth on either side. The weakness of the headteacher to address the issues leads to a bloody confrontation – although this is not as obvious as the topic suggests.
In many ways, Martyr condemns the failure of liberalism to cope with intolerance, and the danger of accepting authority from a flawed individual. The Bible is used to justify terror – many of the speeches draw on its most incendiary passages – and while there is no apparent justification for the religious extremism, the portrayal of the violence of the school-yard is gripping.
If the characters are more often symbols of an idea, the interludes between the students revel in awkward desires and the main confrontations are intelligent and thrilling.
Mayenburg's script is a reasoned response to the growth of radicalism and a rejection of a counter-extremism: it offers fuel for conversation even where it lacks philosophical depth.