Phil Morris reviews Lisa Parry’s Theatre Uncut shortlisted play, The Merthyr Stigmatist, a two-woman show tracing the fault lines of class, religion, and community.
Lisa Parry’s gripping two-hander The Merthyr Stigmatist arrives on our digital screens as a filmed play. Delayed and deprived of its original live-performance format by the pandemic, the play has lost none of the urgency and topicality that saw it shortlisted for Theatre Uncut’s ‘Political Playwriting’ award. The title indicates a strong religious theme, but the target of Parry’s simmering anger is political rather than theological. Her play is less about the metaphysics of faith than it is pained by the social stigma of unemployment and poverty, which makes for a potent polemical drama that is disappointingly less complex than it might have been.
The narrative centres on Carys, a 16-year-old pupil at a Catholic high school in Merthyr who has recently and mysteriously manifested stigmata, the wounds of Christ’s crucifixion, “like a freakish Harry Potter scar” on her hands and feet. After uploading footage of her stigmata to a social media site, which inevitably goes viral, Carys finds herself trapped in detention with her well-intentioned but disbelieving teacher Sian. As her video post attracts an increasing number of hits, it is unclear at first as to whether Carys is imbued with spiritual zeal or the endorphin rush of social media attention. Sian wonders aloud if the stigmata might signify a self-harming cry for help. The teacher’s relentless questioning of Carys’ claims of transfiguration ramps up the dramatic tension considerably across a running-time of only 55 minutes.
Bethan McLean, making an impressive professional debut, portrays Carys with an utterly convincing blend of stroppy provocation, vulnerable defensiveness, and a robust civic pride in her working-class community. As Sian, Bethan Mary-James vividly expresses a contempt for Catholicism that only a lapsed Catholic can feel. Viewing Carys’ video, she exclaims, “I saw a performance not divine intervention”, and yet her disavowal rings a little hollow, especially when we learn that she still grieves for a long-deceased father and carries a gnawing guilt about ‘escaping’ her humble roots in Merthyr.
Initially, The Merthyr Stigmatist is somewhat reminiscent of Jon Pielmeier’s Agnes of God, in which a psychologist has her trust in science shaken when confronted by the burning faith of a seemingly damaged young nun she is tasked with treating. As Parry’s play progresses, however, it becomes increasingly clear that class is the fault-line that divides its two characters. Sian has taken the familiar route of education out of the valleys to carve out a comfortable if staid middle-class existence. In opposition, Carys clings fiercely to her family and hometown, embracing a collective rather than individualist identity and drawing strength from working-class solidarity; she taunts her teacher, “Are you scared that your accent might come back?”
The Merthyr Stigmatist is not about the suffering of Christ or his followers, rather it articulates, in Carys’ words, “The numb feeling of being looked through and ignored”. As with Gary Owen’s similarly polemical Iphigenia in Splott, Parry’s young female protagonist is offered up as a sacrificial figure who acts in the name of a just and compassionate society, which may once have been within our grasp. As Carys explains, “We’re all stigmatists here, mine’s just visible that’s all”.
Lisa Parry succeeds powerfully in making the psychological wounds of Merthyr’s working poor and long-term unemployed visible, which alone makes The Merthyr Stigmatist worth seeing – although those who most need to hear its message will no doubt make their excuses and stay away. Her narrow focus on class, however, strips the play of a layer or two of complexity that might have lifted it to another level of drama entirely. While Parry wisely avoids coming down on one side or the other regarding the origin of Carys’ stigmata, the possibilities that it is either religious passion or mental illness are never offered for serious consideration. This is a shame because religion has long been a central theme in Welsh drama, as is evident in A Dirty Broth the recent anthology of 20th century Welsh drama edited by David Cottis. Questions of spirituality appear not to have bothered recent Welsh playwrights, except those concerning humanistic notions of collective responsibility and social justice. In not addressing the mystery of faith alongside the more earthbound problems of deindustrialised valleys communities, The Merthyr Stigmatist is therefore something of a missed opportunity.
Emma Callander’s direction is clear and unfussy, as is Elin Steele’s minimalist design, although this leaves the production’s attempt at a climactic coup-de-theatre feeling rather forced and unearned. Both actors make good use of Parry’s spare dialogue and avoid histrionics even when the play lurches into occasional melodrama. Sherman Theatre Cymru and Theatre Uncut are to be commended for supporting this intriguing play and bringing it to audiences in the current challenging circumstances. This coproduction exemplifies the need for articulate voices of protest to speak for those who are too often marginalised by government and the mainstream media. Lisa Parry does so with insight, compassion, and a refreshing lack of condescension.
Find out more about The Merthyr Stigmatist on Sherman Theatre’s website.
Phil Morris is a regular contributor to Wales Arts Review.