There’s a piercing authenticity to Lisa Parry’s Theatre Uncut prize-winning The Merthyr Stigmatist, a clear-eyed and compelling dissection of where religion meets politics. The taut two-hander drives a nail through the heart (or hand) of some well-trodden but rarely so carefully considered issues in the troubled, post-industrial south Wales town — and other places in Wales and well beyond.
Teenager Carys has been kept in detention at her Catholic comprehensive school on Friday afternoon by her snippy science teacher, Siân — and she doesn’t know why. Except she does. Carys claims to have been receiving the wounds of Christ every Friday afternoon. Many people in town believe her and she is gaining notoriety, but Siân — a local woman who “escaped” from the town via university to live a city-dweller’s life in Cardiff, only to be dragged home by the death of a parent – struggles with her assumptions about teenage Merthyr girls. Carys must be troubled, self-harming, in need of Siân “lightning bolt of safeguarding” to get passed her trauma, focus on her GCSEs, get out of the town to a better life.
But as soon as sassy Carys speaks it’s clear something about this dynamic is off-kilter. The teenager is quick-witted, relaxed and in control while her tetchy teacher paces and peers anxiously down the corridor. As the detention drags on and Carys’s recently uploaded video of her receiving her stigmata goes viral, Parry playfully turns assumptions on their head. It’s Siân, not Carys, who has the real demons to exorcise; and it’s Carys — proudly connected to her community and its history, while forthright about its woes — who can see Siân’s trauma and bring it out into the open.
Over The Merthyr Stigmatist’s hour, the audience is never asked to consider whether Carys’ wounds are real. This isn’t really a play about religious faith, but rather one about belief in community. The playwright gently weaves her simple, yet profoundly moving, metaphor: Carys’ stigmata are the wounds of her community representing the visible stigma of being from Merthyr. When Siân tells Carys to hide her wounds, the depth of her shame about where she is from spills out.
Bethan Mary-James captures the quiet crumbling of Siân’s overwrought facade of authority with flawlessly perceptive grace, while Bethan McLean brings effortless self-assurance and cheeky charm to the zingingly articulate Carys in a role that pushes back on the rough-and-chopsy working-class girl stereotype that appears in “poverty porn” plays written and produced by people less connected to their subject matter than Parry. Her dialogue cuts through cliché and, even when a male voice choir shows up, there’s no risk of the play falling into a parody of valleys Welshness.
Emma Callander’s pacy direction keeps this already spry two-hander feeling fleet-footed, as Carys and Siân chip relentlessly away at each other to ultimately unearth their deeper truths. And despite the play being essentially two characters talking in a room, it rarely feels static or confined as the dialogue lets the ideas soar. Designer Elin Steele’s elegant schoolroom set draws a symbolic line between the two opposing points of view. It cleverly turns the space at once into a microcosm of the whole community and a kind of sparring ring for their verbal blows, before delivering a genuinely visceral visual climax as blood pours down the glass walls.