ARC presents MARTYR by Marius Vn Mayenberg (translated by Maja Zade)
ARC’s unsettling ‘Martyr’ left me with unanswered questions, and that’s a good thing.
In his recent appearance to promote his memoir ‘Spare’, Prince Harry told nighttime host Stephen Colbert: “Context means everything.”
This statement certainly rings true for understanding religious matters from a Christian faith perspective, and its link to understanding objective versus subjective truth is shockingly realized in ARC’s first production of 2023, Marius Von Mayenburg’s MARTYR (translated by Maja Zade).
I’d like to clarify one very important point first. Religious and moral truths are objective, not subjective, from a Catholic/Christian perspective. There exists TRUTH (there’s no such thing as ‘my truth’ or ‘your truth’) which applies to all of us, and the teachings and doctrine of the Catholic/Christian Church are part of this search for objective truth.
MARTYR is an at-times uncomfortable and darkly comic gaze at the horrifying prevalence of subjective Christian extremism and radicalism that denotes an intent to transform through changes whether they be social, structural, or revolutionary.
It is from my experience that many individuals appear to misunderstand the difference between objective versus subjective truth, and I was concerned MARTYR was going to become another Christian/Catholic bashing play on account of it.
As a practicing person of faith and retired Catholic school secondary teacher, I did question some unbelievable plot moments that would never happen today in an Ontario secondary school setting. For example, the atheist Biology teacher/Guidance counsellor Erica White decides how a lesson on sexuality will proceed in her class using a condom and a carrot and how to place the former on the latter. The students in the class are each given a carrot and a condom to demonstrate a ‘supposed’ learning outcome. When such explicit intimate sexual issues are discussed with persons under the age of 18, parental consent is required for a child to be present during the lesson. The mother Ingrid Sinclair responds as if this is the first time she has ever heard about this so this element did not ring true for me.
But after a full twenty-four-hour thinking, pondering, and examining my informed Catholic/Christian conscience, I’ve realized there’s more to this fascinating yet unsettling play that left me with further unanswered questions. And that’s a good thing as that’s what theatre is supposed to do – poke and prod us to think, to question and to consider.
MARTYR does not Catholic or Christian bash. Director Rob Kempson smartly tackles this production with the utmost care and sensitivity in what he calls an ‘ideas ‘play in his Programme Note. The play examines radicalization, religion, education, power, queerness, and isolation forthright and in-your-face so be prepared sometimes for the unexpected. I applaud the actors for their work here.
In his Programme Note once again, Kempson states: “[the play] doesn’t rely solely on these ideas to compel the audience.” Instead, he compelled me to recognize and see that a martyr does not necessarily need to have a particular faith belief. He turned my understanding of what a martyr is upside down especially when it becomes apparent who is the martyr of this story.
Jackie Chau’s theatre in the round setting beautifully allowed for ample and clear sightlines. The eight actors sit on stages left and right (four chairs on each side) when they are not involved in the plot action. James Dallas Smith’s haunting musical score selection at the top of the show sharply captured my ear as I listened while looking at the set. About halfway through the story, the overlapping sounds heard within Benjamin’s rushing mind are stark reminders of the tortured young boy. Michelle Ramsay’s lighting designs effectively capture the starkness of the moment when necessary.
The ensemble cast remains stellar throughout. Under Kempson’s subtly nuanced direction, the actors’ bold choices left me breathless in wondering how far the emotional intensity of the moment would play out to its maximum potential.
As the tortured and misinformed Benjamin Sinclair who turns to religious zealotry and newfound fervour in cherry-picking Biblical verses to fulfill an abyss within himself, Nabil Traboulsi is terrifyingly haunting in the full development of his character arc. Deborah Drakeford is heartrendingly credible as Benjamin’s distraught single mother who is at her wit’s end in coping with her son’s idiosyncratic behaviour.
Aviva Armour-Ostroff remains compelling as atheist teacher Erica White who confronts Benjamin and graphically meets him on a distinctively harsh face-to-face level. Richard Lee is Marcus Dixon, Erica’s colleague, and her boyfriend who gets her to confront head-on the personal issues surrounding her professional handling of the issues with Benjamin. Ryan Allen’s smug school headmaster Willy Bedford becomes that ingratiating so-called educational leader who sadly and ironically in the end is only interested in his own personal agenda, and not the welfare of those young people at the school. In Biblical terms, Ryan Hollyman as school Vicar Dexter Menrath dutifully does what he is supposed to do in his calling to help look for the lost sheep (meaning Benjamin) and bring him back. Hollyman calmly, believably, and bravely tries to harness and corral Benjamin’s misguided understanding of Biblical text, but the growing frustration of Menrath to Benjamin’s reluctance is a grim reminder of those whose task it is to go out and spread the Good News of the Gospel in a secular world.
Adriano Reis convincingly reveals his vulnerability as the quietly eccentric George Hansen, Benjamin’s supposed only friend at school. Reis’s performance of simmering and heartbreaking naivete magnifies and underscores the shocking conclusion of the story. Charlotte Dennis is a dynamic force as the sexually charged Lydia Weber who flirtatiously teases Benjamin and warps his understanding of any kind of intimacy with others be it physical or otherwise.
Final Comments: ARC’s MARTYR is a disturbing, puzzling, and fascinating work of theatre that poked and prodded me with unanswered questions and new thoughts about faith and religious influence in an increasingly secular society. That is exactly what good theatre is supposed to do.
Running time: approximately 90 minutes with no intermission.
‘Martyr’ runs to January 29 at the Aki Studio in Daniels Spectrum, 585 Dundas Street East. For tickets, visit arcstage.com.
ARC presents the Canadian premiere of MARTYR by Marius Von Mayenburg (Translated by Maja Zade)
Produced by Julia Dickson
Directed by Rob Kempson
Set/Costume Designer: Jackie Chau
Lighting Designer: Michelle Ramsay
Sound Designer: James Dallas Smith
Fight and Intimacy Director: Jack Rennie
Technical Director: B. C. Batty
Blood FX Consultant: Alex Gilbert
Performers: Nabil Traboulsi, Aviva Armour-Ostroff, Ryan Hollyman, Richard Lee, Ryan Allen, Adriano Reis, Charlotte Dennis, Deborah Drakeford.