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Martyr review at the Unicorn Theatre, London – ‘provocative and intellectually stimulating’

Daniel O'Keefe in Martyr at the Unicorn Theatre, London. Photo: Stephen Cummiskey Daniel O'Keefe in Martyr at the Unicorn Theatre, London. Photo: Stephen Cummiskey
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The Actors Touring Company, led by director Ramin Gray, has been exemplary in its choice of work, which is both provocative and intellectually stimulating. In 2013, its staging of David Greig’s The Events was one of the highlights of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Now this 2012 play by German playwright Marius von Mayenburg, in a co-production with the Unicorn, is similarly powerful.

When teenage Benjamin refuses to participate in swimming lessons at school, his concerned mother and teachers soon discover that the reason is his religious objection to mixed-sex activities. As his fundamentalist fanaticism grows, the initial twist is that he is a Christian and not a Muslim. But, as with all radicals, Benjamin’s passionate Biblical preaching has a greater effect on those around him than on himself. He tries to convert his gay school friend George and rebuffs another teen, Lydia, while his headmaster, guidance teacher, PE teacher and local vicar – as well as his mother – struggle to understand what’s going on.

Gray’s excellent production balances the tender moments of Maja Zade’s expert translation with the more open confrontations, and he successfully builds a sense of danger as the plot moves towards an unexpected climax. His multicultural cast is led by Daniel O’Keefe, whose brave and committed performance as Benjamin is well matched by Natalie Radmall-Quirke as his teacher, with good support from Flaminia Cinque as his mother, Mark Lockyer as the headmaster, Brian Lonsdale as the PE teacher and Kriss Dosanjh as vicar. Farshid Rokey and Jessye Romeo impress as Benjamin’s fellow pupils. This is a timely and thought-provoking piece of new writing.

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New German play about religious fundamentalism is both provocative and intellectually stimulating