For its Canadian premiere, ARC presents a striking, minimalist production of Marius von Mayenburg’s MARTYR. This fiery play opens on a mother desperately trying to understand why her son refuses to swim at school. She prompts him with a litany of possibilities: Is he ashamed of his body? Is he on drugs? Is he intentionally pushing her buttons as teenagers do?
Initially cagey, it isn’t long before Benjamin confides in her his astonishing belief: that boys and girls swimming together is immoral, the exposed flesh a sin. She dismisses it as a ruse at first, but as his religious fervour intensifies, this fanaticism sparks conflict at home and within the predominantly secular school community. His extreme behaviour gradually exposes undercurrents of anti-semitism, misogyny and homophobia.
Deborah Drakeford is funny, sympathetic and relatable as a concerned and practical mother navigating a recent divorce and disturbed son. Her bristling, naturalistic dynamic with Benjamin grounds a narrative that wants to—partially does—career into absurdist allegory.
As Benjamin, Nabil Traboulsi has a resolute and manic intensity. His impassioned rhetoric is both rousing and frightening. Where did his beliefs come from though? Why does he cling so desperately? Traboulsi is giving it his all, but von Mayenburg’s script (perhaps Maja Zade’s translation?) paints him as a cypher. His zealotry is supposed to be baffling, I guess, but I found him mostly insufferable.
Is he just a catalyst in this narrative? A device to ignite ideological debate amongst the adults, exposing their repressed emotional and ideological insecurities?
There is an electric moment, rather early on, when I caught a glimpse of his vulnerability. In a playfully predatory gesture, a female classmate—Lydia (Charlotte Dennis)—tries to provoke his sexual curiosity. The intimate contact, though brief and uncomfortable, was the only time I felt genuine empathy for him.
Though the role isn’t as well developed as most of the others, Dennis has some very satisfying moments. My favourite might be a perfectly timed, deliberately insinuating bite into a carrot. Iconic.
A soft-spoken vicar (Ryan Hollyman), his religious studies teacher, tries to enlist Benjamin as a youth leader. The biology teacher, Eruca (Aviva Armour-Ostroff) immerses herself in scripture to combat his religious rantings from an informed standpoint, though she becomes an antagonistic zealot herself. She’s the most consistently accessible character here and Armour-Ostroff is riveting throughout. Her partner—the phys-ed teacher, Marcus (Richard Lee)—has his own issues with Benjamin, but is mostly impacted by Eruca’s obsessive crusade.
Playing up the pandering, smarmy persona of headmaster Belford, Ryan Allen’s presence in scenes feels like comic intrusion. His ineffectual character is the most overtly satirical, but the execution is clunky. Amidst so much genuine drama, his blatant and exaggerated ineptitude feel contrived. Allen has ample charisma, but the script renders him a buffoon.
And then there is poor George. A boy born with one leg shorter than the other, Benjamin adopts this “cripple” as a disciple. There is significant sexual tension between them as Benjamin’s plans for him create some awkward, physical intimacy. As George, Adriano Reis strikes a fine balance between goofy naïveté and poignant adoration.
Rob Kempson’s staging is simple and evocative. Except for the odd chair and key prop, there is little to pull our attention away from the persuasive actors and their highly charged interactions. Overall, the performances are naturalistic, but highly stylized flourishes abound. When not in a scene, the cast sits off to the side, in chairs flanking the stage—looking on with the audience.
The set is a raised plane of interlocking woodwork. Designer Jackie Chau has given the underside of this platform screened paneling that might suggest a confession booth. Michelle Ramsay’s lighting is gently atmospheric, enhancing mood without drawing attention to itself. Sound designer James Dallas Smith punctuates Benjamin’s disruptive religious mania with an eerie drone of disembodied voices. One particularly distracting effect is the reverb added to the dialogue of one scene to suggest a vast church environment.
MARTYR hovers precariously between Brechtian theatrics and hard-hitting drama before finally crashing boldly into an explosive, deliberately alienating showdown. The overall trajectory is undeniably thrilling and I understand the intended impact of the finale, but I wasn’t really invested. Perhaps the tonal fluctuation is more fully compelling in the original German; here, though, I was getting it more than I was feeling it. It’s a wild ride though, with some breathtaking moments.