Martyr Red is a play of passion that treads the fine line between intense suffering and sexual desire.Martyr Red is a play of passion that treads the fine line between intense suffering and sexual desire.

After a gap of several years, Frank Camilleri’s Icarus Project has presented Martyr Red at MITP, Valletta, following earlier performances at the University of Kent, England, where Camilleri taught for some years before coming back to the University of Malta’s Theatre Studies Department.

It is a short work for two performers, but it was obvious that much study, experimentation and rehearsing had gone into it.

The programme note speaks of the Icarus Project’s ongoing research since 2001 on the area between training and performance processes, research involving a study of what Camilleri calls “habitational action” in performance. Camilleri has written in learned journals on the meaning of this phrase, apparently coined by him, but in any case, I came to view the end result of the research work as a normal member of the audience, not as an academic interested in performance studies.

The theme, as the title suggests, is that of martyrs and martyrdom, and Camilleri describes it as “a play of passion that treads the fine line between intense suffering and sexual desire”. The martyrdom illustrated by this work is not religious, but pertains to an intimate personal relationship.

The performance consists of a series of scenes between a Man (Frank Camilleri) and a Woman (Judita Vivas). Each scene is in a different mode, depending largely, but not wholly, on dialogue, danced to music, or depending almost entirely on physical action.

The scenes where the spoken word predominates, even those where there is strong physical action, avoid the expression of strong emotion from the performers.

The first scene, like the early scenes in T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, from which the words spoken here derive, words referring to hell and evil, prepares the audience for what is to come. Both actors have an apple, with a knife stuck into it, before them. An apple which, like the Biblical apple, they begin to consume before the piece gets to the heart of the action. The climax of this action comes when the Man, holding between his teeth the cylindrical central portion of the fruit, fiercely makes the Woman eat it.

Camilleri and Vivas make an impressive duo, in whose story we cannot but find ourselves involved

Both personages change in one scene. The Woman sheds her long, loose gown and puts on high heels, shiny white short breeches and a black jacket that suggests she is now a Man, while the Man’s metamorphosis is into an emasculated person with a bare torso and a skirt.

The relationship between the two has now changed from an early dance of attraction to one in which the Man becomes subjugated to the Woman and treated increasingly like a victim, until we see his physical suffering appear in long diagonal red stripes on his upper body, stripes he has applied on himself – an act the audience is all too ready to accept.

The piece ends in an aura of growing peace and some sort of conciliation. The programme note speaks, in fact, of sublimation. The final text used in the piece is that of a poem previously unknown to me and probably known to Eliot and other English literature specialists, that of an early poem understandably never published in Eliot’s lifetime, The Love Song of St Sebastian.

The poem appears to be the product of the decadence found in so much early 19th-century literature, and most unlike the poetry that made the poet famous. In it, Sebastian, bleeding from the flogging he has given himself, gets into bed with the woman he loves, strangles her, kneels on her head, and finds an insane fulfilment in this union with her.

The verses in the poem, “You would love me because I should have strangled you / And because of my infamy /And I should love you the more because I have mangled you / And because you were no longer beautiful / To anyone but me” may throw light on the uneasy calm with which the piece comes to a close.

Camilleri and Vivas make an impressive duo, in whose story we cannot but find ourselves involved, without the excitement so often experienced in mainstream theatre. Camilleri’s strong voice is contrasted with the softer voice, just as clear, of Vivas. Both are deft when they deal with props and are particularly impressive in the scene with the apples.

Above all, our interest in them rarely flags, even though they stay well away from the techniques used by most actors to secure our interest in them. Music and Dustin Cachia’s beautifully-judged lighting design give an added dimension to the two actors’ performing skills.