Review: The Merthyr Stigmatist

An image of Carys, a sixteen year old schoolgirl played by Bethan MCLean, and Sian her teacher played by Bethan Mary James standing face to face in confrontation.

Photo by Mark Douet

Sherman Theatre (Online)

28/05/21

“Do you have any idea what that’s been like, Miss? To see my hands every Friday and think, I must exist.”

In Merthyr Tydfil, on a Friday afternoon, a teenager is in detention. But unlike the myriad other teenagers in Friday detention in other schools in other towns, Carys is in detention because she appears to have stigmata, the wounds of Christ. As Carys and Siân, her frustrated, cynical teacher, argue over Carys’ decision to share a video about her stigmata online, The Merthyr Stigmatist paints a picture of a community seeking a moment of divinity.

Lisa Parry’s deft two-hander, directed by Emma Callander, conjures a vivid sense of the town on stage, despite the only connections to the world outside the classroom being a laptop on a desk and the haunting strains of a local choir singing their support of Carys from the schoolyard. In Bethan-Mary James’ taut Siân, we see a woman who tried to escape and distance herself from a town that she felt stifled and trapped in, while Bethan McLean’s recalcitrant Carys presents a young woman who wants to find her freedom through making herself and her town visible and unforgettable. In less than an hour of tense, revealing dialogue, Parry poses pertinent questions about how towns like Merthyr Tydfil are treated by governments, and about the too-easy assumption that a young person has to leave their town to make something of themselves. Carys’ pride and frustration in her town challenges us to consider what changes can be made, and Siân’s experience describes the danger of ignoring that challenge.

Elin Steele’s stark set design, and Andy Pike’s lighting design combine to create moments of the sublime in the plain setting of a secondary school. As shafts of warm light stream through the windows onto the laptop where Carys’ video is garnering viral attention, it is as though they are falling through the stained glass of a church window, illuminating Merthyr’s young Messiah, “Carys Christ.”

Whether Carys’ stigmata are real or not, they deliver a vivid moment of possibility for her and her town. As she cries “I’ve just caused what might soon possibly be a global situation because you’ve stopped thinking a person like me is worth hearing,” McClean declares the crux of the play. Carys and her community don’t need another martyr like the town’s namesake, and they don’t need to escape, they need to be listened to and heard.

In its sharp balance of humour, pathos and cutting insight, The Merthyr Stigmatist crafts a striking and affecting celebration of the power and resilience of community.

The Merthyr Stigmatist is available to watch as a streamed performance from The Sherman Theatre until the 12th of June.

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