Stage Door Review 2023


Tuesday, February 7, 2023


by Marius von Mayenburg, translated by Maja Zade, directed by Rob Kempson

ARC, Daniels Spectrum, 585 Dundas Street East, Toronto

January 14-29, 2023

Benjamin: “I’ve had it with hiding and pretending to be sick when I’m the only one who’s healthy”

ARC, which has functioned as Toronto’s lifeline to thought-provoking plays from outside Canada, is currently presenting the Canadian premiere of Martyr (Märtyrer) from 2012 by German playwright Marius von Mayenburg. Toronto has seen two previous productions of Mayenburg’s work. In 2000 the World Stage Festival presented Fireface (Feuergesicht) from 1997, the play that made Mayenburg famous. In 2011 Theatre Smash presented his play The Ugly One (Der Häßliche) from 2007. Both plays, like Martyr, are about outsiders who don’t fit in to “normal” society – Fireface being a full-on tragedy, The Ugly One a satirical comedy. Martyr is a very dark satire, a much more problematic genre. Director Rob Kempson generally fails to make the play’s satirical edge clear with the result that the play too often feels like a defective realist drama than a trenchant portrayal of society too ready to fall under the sway of a bully.

Martyr focusses on the 15-year-old Benjamin Sinclair, a high school student, who wants his mother to write a note excusing him from swimming lessons “for religious reasons”. She refuses to do this which results in Benjamin protesting the swimming classes by jumping in the pool fully clothed. When called before Erica White, a biology teacher and guidance counsellor, Benjamin says he is protesting co-ed swimming classes and the immodest attire of the girls. Referring to 1 Timothy 2:9 and Matthew 5:28, Benjamin says “The Lord commands that women adorn themselves in modest apparel… I declare war on depravity, because the Lord says: whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with his heart… I protest the shameless mingling of the sexes underneath the water.”

Already in Scene 3 of the play’s 27 scenes Benjamin uses reference to the Bible to justify his actions. From this point on he will speak almost entirely not merely in allusions to the Bible but in direct quotations from it. His adherence to the Bible manages to alienate the three teachers we meet. He tells his biology teacher Ms. White that teaching contraception is contrary to the Bible. He tells his history and gym teacher Mr. Dixon that the only history he needs to know is in the Bible. He tells his religious studies teacher Vicar Menrath that his idea of a church is contrary to Jesus’s statement “But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret” (Matthew 6:6).

Benjamin takes particular offence at Ms. White, who teaches evolution and not creation. To solve this conflict the ineffectual principal Mr. Bedford recommends that both be taught. This may seem ridiculous but as we know this idea has still found traction in the US, a country where 40% of the population as of 2019 said they believed in creationism.

During the course of the play’s 90 minutes, Benjamin’s zealotry escalates to the stage where he believes he can cure his friend George’s shorter leg through prayer. Benjamin seems to ignore the fact that George enjoys Benjamin’s laying on of hands because George is attracted to him.

Regarded as a realistic play, Martyr appears to be a study of how religious fundamentalism can take hold of a teenager. In the midst of the confusion of adolescence, a book that provides all the answers is a great support. That book also provides numerous quotations that reinforce Benjamin’s conviction that the world around him is corrupt and those he hates will be punished. Benjamin even finds support for disdaining his divorced mother in Mark 10:12. Benjamin’s religious fundamentalism becomes the channel for ordinary teenage rebellion against adults and the world they created.

Up to this point the play could be seen as posing the question of how far a school, or the public in general, should tolerate people with an absolutist world-view that is itself intolerant? This a valid, extremely relevant question and most critiques of the play stop at this point as if that were all Mayenburg were depicting.

But Mayenburg pushes Benjamin’s zealotry into much more dangerous territory, as he has Benjamin move from self-formed Christian fundamentalism into old-fashioned antisemitism directed against Ms. White, whom, without proof, he assumes is Jewish.

At the same time Mayenburg has Ms. White give up her attempt to make Benjamin see reason. Instead, she begins obsessively reading the Bible to find statements that contradict Benjamin’s. She tells Mr. Dixon, her boyfriend, that she has decided to fight Benjamin on his own terms. Unfortunately, this means an end to the religion-versus-science conflict that we thought White’s presence was meant to represent.

In a surprise ending, both Benjamin and Ms. White come to hate each other so much that each abandons whatever principals of faith or of the teacher’s code of ethics that they had been following. This ends the play with a bang but it also makes us wonder what Mayenburg’s real topic has been. It seems not to be the radicalization of adolescence. It also seems not to be the problem of how society can deal with people who have a virulently intolerant world view. Judging from the conclusion, the play seems to show that intolerance in one person breeds and equal but opposite intolerance in another. The play also satirizes a society so lacking in principals that it can easily succumb to anyone who claims to have them, no matter how dubious they are.

As in satire Mayenburg depicts all of Benjamin’s potential opponent as ineffective straw men. Benjamin’s mother just gives up, Mr. Dixon just gets angry, the principal keeps attempting appeasement and Ms. White first tries to reason with him and abandons that for a fighting-fire-with-fire approach. The two other teens in the play, Lydia and George, both fancy Benjamin and want his attention.

The one character who should be able to point out the fallacy of Benjamin’s religious mania is Vicar Menrath, however, Mayenburg makes the Vicar see in Benjamin not a troubled youth but a teen with vigour who could energize his congregation. Thus, Mayenburg has deliberately surrounded firm believer Benjamin with people who have no firm beliefs and thus cannot make Benjamin see how shallow his understanding of the Bible really is.

Repeatedly, we see Benjamin tell off an adult with a Bible verse leaving them nonplussed and without an adequate rejoinder. One doesn’t need to know the Bible well to see that Benjamin only cites those passages that support his point of view. He especially favours the misogyny of 1 Timothy 2:12: “But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence”.

It is signally important that Benjamin never quotes either of the two best-known parts of the Bible – the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17) or the Golden Rule, “Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you: do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets” (Matthew 7:12). Even worse, no one in the play quotes these passages back to Benjamin to discredit him. Benjamin abandons the Golden Rule as soon as he starts harassing all around him, and in the course of the play he clearly breaks or plans to break Commandments 5, 6 and 9.

If we look for realism we will see that since Benjamin lacks a strong or knowledgeable enough opponent there is no real conflict, especially no satisfying debate about religion or about Benjamin’s highly selective reading of the Bible. If we look for satire we see Benjamin’s zeal escalate to ever more outrageous extremes until it collapses and turns to lies.

The only way to make sense of Martyr is to realize that, like Mayenburg’s The Ugly One, the play is a dark satire, but one that is more frightening than funny because its subject matter is so incendiary. Benjamin’s unimpeded rise the more fanatical he becomes makes the play a modern echo of Brecht’s satire of the rise of Nazism in The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui (1941), with Benjamin’s religious absolutism replacing Arturo Ui’s totalitarianism.

Rob Kempson’s direction is torn between presenting that action as satire and as serious parable. This leaves the actors rather at sea as to how to play their roles. Most try to round out their characters as if they were fully realistic instead of playing up the caricatures most of them are.

Mayenburg has given Richard Lee as Marcus Dixon, Benjamin’s gym teacher, almost nothing to work with, but Lee at least gives us the portrait of an ordinary guy who is at a loss when faced with extraordinary behaviour, whether from Benjamin or Ms. White. Mayenburg has sketched Vicar Menrath as wholly imperceptive of the danger that Benjamin’s fanaticism is causing. Ryan Hollyman suitably plays Menrath as unworldly and self-absorbed.

Deborah Drakeford has slightly more to work with as Benjamin’s mother Ingrid making her an exhausted woman who has little energy for a fight and has only clichéd notions of what might be causing her son’s bizarre behaviour. Ryan Allen has little choice but to play the principal Willy Bedford as a buffoon. Bedford is so weak that he can’t see that constantly appeasing Benjamin at the expense of his teachers is a too-easy solution that will not end well. What little authority Bedford has Mayenburg further undermines with Bedford’s inappropriate sexual comments to Ms. White.

Charlotte Dennis has only a handful of lines as Lydia Weber, a girl who would be attracted to Benjamin if he weren’t so strange. Lydia seems to be the only character in the play with any insight when she notes that Benjamin’s fanaticism must be a result of sexual repression.

The most well-rounded character is George Hensen, a boy with a limp who is happy to become Benjamin’s first disciple. Adriano Reis paints a sensitive portrait of a boy so used to bullying he can hardly believe that anyone, especially someone so forceful as Benjamin, would take any notice of him. Once George is sure of Benjamin’s friendship, Reis shows us how tentatively George tries to determine whether Benjamin would like to be more than just friends. Reis’s is the most endearing performance in the play and the only one that gives the piece any emotional depth.

As the biology teacher Erica White, Aviva Armour-Ostroff plays the only other character to take a journey from rationality to fanaticism. Mayenburg gives the actor very few scenes in order to effect this change, and, indeed, it really seems like too few. We can see why the rationalist in White would be outraged by Benjamin’s irrationalism, but merely showing White pouring through the Bible looking to refute Benjamin doesn’t really carry enough weight and does not really signal to us that in fighting Benjamin on his own terms she is stepping away from the scientific knowledge that is her strength. Yet, Armour-Ostroff does convey White’s rapidly increasing anger so that we are not entirely surprised that it should so dramatically leap off the scale at the end.

Nabil Traboulsi has given powerful, nuanced performances in Toronto in the past — as the severely troubled office worker Dean in Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ Gloria last year or as the gallant Chevalier in Marivaux’s La Seconde Surprise de l’amour in 2018. The requirements for Mayenburg’s Benjamin go beyond the demands of these roles and Traboulsi completely fulfils them. Imagine playing a part written almost entirely in biblical quotations and yet being able to speak them as if they were exactly your own thoughts. That is what Traboulsi accomplishes.

Besides this, despite Benjamin’s preoccupation with scenes of death and destruction of the unrighteous and his increasing delusions of grandeur, Traboulsi is able to make us see that Benjamin is still an innocent, with little or no knowledge of the real world. Traboulsi suggests that Benjamin’s use of biblical quotations is a sign of his own inability to articulate his feelings.

When Martyr premiered in Berlin in 2012 it received largely negative reviews. In translation in Paris and London, however, it received strongly positive reviews. In 2016 Russia, Kirill Serebrennikov made the play into a film called The Student – (M)ученик, a play on “martyr” (мученик) and “student” (ученик) – which won the François Chalais Award in the “Un Certain regard” competition at the Cannes Festival.

This suggests that directors have been able to find a way to present this problematic work as a biting satire of society’s enabling of fanaticism while not downplaying the dangers when absolute intolerance is given free rein. While Kempson does not achieve this necessary, delicate balance in his production, the play is eminently worth seeing both for the wonderfully contrasting performances of Traboulsi and Reis and as a provocation for debate about the play’s difficult but vitally important subject matter.

Christopher Hoile

Photos: Adriano Reis as George and Nabil Traboulsi as Benjamin; Nabil Traboulsi as Benjamin; Aviva Armour-Ostroff as Erica White and Nabil Traboulsi as Benjamin; Deborah Drakeford as Ingrid Sinclair and Nabil Traboulsi as Benjamin; Nabil Traboulsi as Benjamin and Adriano Reis as George. © 2023 Sam Moffatt.

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