Review: Martyr, Bristol Old Vic

9th September 2015


The recent furore over the case of Kim Davis in the US and her decision to act upon her deeply held religious beliefs has provided just one prominent example of the tensions that can arise within modern liberal societies. The tolerance of others, the upholding of free speech and the ability to practice religion often comes into conflict with the extreme, bigoted or ignorant actions that such liberalism vows to uphold. By their very nature, liberals are stuck with tolerating non-liberals.

This tension becomes only more striking when characterising the relationships within a school, the setting for Martyr, the provocative new play from German writer Marius von Mayenburg. Student Benjamin, acting upon his newly found religious fervour, snaps back at the ‘depravity’ he sees around him, with varying responses from teachers, friends and his worried mother. 

He attacks his mother for the supposed adultery of leaving his father, and the school for allowing the “shameless mingling of the sexes” in co-ed swimming lessons. His Christianity is not of the vanilla flavour – for him the Bible is a “sword” and there is a clear dividing line between the pure and the impure. The fiery performance by Daniel O’Keefe is to a large extent constructed from Bible verses, with a particularly strong line in biting accusations to the unholy. He is, in the words of PE teacher Marcus, a “Jesus freak”.

Martyr follows two lines of interest. First is the relationship between Benjamin and his embattled Biology teacher Erica, played by Natalie Radmall-Quirke, which becomes more entangled and explosive as the play progresses and eventually engulfs them both. Second is the conflict clearly raging within Benjamin’s own head, as he takes on his sceptical mother, the school, the Siren-like calling of classmate Lydia and the cute advances of “crippled” friend George – advances that perhaps hint at a more animalistic cause of the protagonist’s angst.

An overall strong play with a truly shocking ending, Martyr is held back by the paucity of the audience, which gives the cast little to spark off, and from a slightly slow pace. It is also perhaps the case that some of the intensity of the original play was lost in its translation – it is entirely possible that Benjamin’s anti-Semitism towards Erica and the accusations of Nazism that follow would bite harder in Martyr‘s native German.

Conal Dougan

Martyr runs at Bristol Old Vic until 12th September. Find out more