Plays live – and die – in the world. Sometimes a play needn’t be a great work of art, it will serve it’s time and purpose better by simply being useful.
Having known this playwright since 2000 and directed two of his plays (The Ugly One and The Stone, both at the Royal Court Theatre), I can vouch for Marius von Mayenburg’s quality as an artist. But with Martyr he goes one step further serving up a piece that creates a space where we can confront one of the most pressing issues of our time: how should secular society deal with the challenge from extremism?
The idea of theatre as crucible for political debate isn’t new but von Mayenburg reinvigorates it here. Every scene is a model of compressed, almost Socratic dialogue as the author waltzes through the most urgent contemporary conflicts, highlighting the clash between fundamentalist and liberal positions on issues such as sexuality, race, equality, evolution and disability. And we the audience are pushed to decide where to draw the line.
Premiered at Berlin’s Schaubühne in 2011 and subsequently performed in Russian and Polish, the play has had an interesting trajectory, courting controversy in both those countries with their newly resurgent Christianity. In Germany and here in the UK (amongst the most secular European societies), one doesn’t feel especially threatened by the Christian church. Indeed, if there is a religion whose challenge to liberalism is most pressing, von Mayenburg goes out of his way not to name it. But with news stories such as Trojan Horse, school children leaving for ISIS and the Charlie Hebdo shootings, it’s not difficult to see how the play resonates today. And that, I think, is to be welcomed. Here is a play that sets out neither to provoke or soothe but which, by using the classic manoeuvre of Brechtian Verfremdungseffekt, allows us to see a clear pattern of cause and effect, thereby forcing debate.
A martyr, from the Greek ‘witness’, is someone who refuses to renounce a belief or cause of either a religious or secular nature. The German title, Märtyrer, encompasses both singular and plural making it clear that there may be more than one aspirant martyr in the play. By the end, one realises that von Mayenburg has in fact created a secular saint for today in the figure of biology teacher Erica White. She teaches, in passing, that ‘a theory is a model that helps you understand a complex matter’. In elegantly and humorously achieving this, von Mayenburg has provided us with possibly the most potent gift theatre can give: social utility.