For those who haven’t noticed, in the last few years the Unicorn Theatre has been developing a new kind of inclusivity. Ignace Cornelissen and Ellen McDougall’s version of Henry V in 2013, various works by the Belgian company Ontrorerend Goed and now the play by the German playwright Marius von Mayenberg directed by Ramin Gray in a co-production with ATC have all been programmed with the intention of defying the traditional mollycoddling approach towards young people and their theatre expectations.
In the UK Mayenburg’s work has been more at home at the Royal Court (where his plays The Ugly One and The Stone were also directed by Gray), and in Germany the author has been associated with the Blood and Sperm genre of the early 1990s – spearheaded by the translations of Mark Ravenhill and Sarah Kane.
Since 1999 he has been working as the Dramaturg at Berlin’s SchaubÃ¼hne run and made famous over here by Thomas Ostermeier. There are probably two distinguishing features of Mayenburg’s playwriting worth highlighting at the outset: his irresistible sense of humour and his dialectical approach to his chosen theme. (In the spirit of Unicorn’s own bravery, let’s not be afraid of the latter, all it means is an enthusiasm for complexity over the dumbed down black and white route towards the truth).
In Martyr, a play about religious extremism, there are no easy answers therefore; that can be funny and sinister at the same time – and that’s OK. At the centre of the story is the fatherless teenager Benjamin Sinclair. In the process of his own individuation, he has found God and he finds grounds to pit his faith against all of his school subjects: PE, biology, history and even religious studies on the grounds that his personal religious sentiment is more honest than that of the church. Under the surface, the play is initially about the eternal questions of the body and spirit, though the humour with which Benjamin’s conflicts with his mother, his teachers, the authorities and his peers are rendered keeps things light, sometimes rambunctious, mostly pacey throughout.
Ramin Gray places the characters in a world that is at first somewhat crowded and porous – domestic spaces of the Sinclairs and the teachers overlap and merge with classrooms, teachers’ offices and playgrounds. Until that is, Benjamin decides to begin to partition himself away from those that he doesn’t like. His various conflicts culminate in a personal dislike of the biology teacher Ms White, on the basis of his presumption that she is a Jew, and while she studies the Bible in order to beat him at his own game, he gradually plots her ultimate demise.
Things are generally not helped by the fact that the school-master Willy Belford is an autocrat with a sense of justice marred by the neoliberal attitude that the customer – or in this case the pupil – is always right. There is both clarity and nuance in this production. In grappling with his spirituality, Benjamin is also forced to explore his sexuality – and the young audience is rightly not spared any embarrassing details. Gray’s set, conceived to have a symbolic rather than naturalistic value, is also discretely laced with tealights. The ensemble all deliver measured performances with the right dosage of charm and restraint in all the right places. Daniel O’Keefe as Benjamin, Natalie Radman-Quirke as Erica White and Farshid Rokey as Benjamin’s adoring disciple George Hansen deserve a special mention for their considered yet seemingly effortless portrayals of particularly complex characters. However, for me, the stars of the night were the young audiences themselves who fed back to the cast and the producers in no uncertain terms exactly how much they enjoyed being challenged and wooed by this particular work.