The Merthyr Stigmatist review – theatrical magic from the valleys

Ekt is the end of the school week and precociously self-possessed 16-year-old Carys is in detention. Her hands and forearms are bandaged, as every Friday stigmata on her palms begin to weep. She claims that her feet too have recently begun to bleed. A video of this miracle is about to go viral. Her teacher Siân, yearning for her own absolution, threatens to call a crisis team, and outside on the schoolyard, an amassing crowd sings of angels. Signs are taken for wonders in The Merthyr Stigmatist, Lisa Parry’s taut and stirring two-hander about faith and community in Merthyr Tydfil.

Skilfully paced with direction by Emma Callander, it is a dramatic setup whose tension only increases over its running time of little under an hour. The airless and claustrophobic classroom is a microcosm for the world outside. Everybody knows everybody else’s business a little too well, and people are all still identified by their occupation: Bryn Books, John the Chippy, Carys Christ (“CC – like Coco Chanel”).

As Carys, Bethan McLean makes a strikingly assured professional debut. Knowing and articulate with flashes of indignant and impassioned fury, Carys relishes the miracle at hand. Also excellent is Bethan Mary-James as Siân, bristling with nervousness and doubt.

Recorded live and available online, it is a production that seems to exist in the interregnum between two worlds: between the mundane and the transcendental, and also – with face masks and allusions to busy hospitals – between the last year and the emerging new normal. There is some tension too between the theatricality of its staging and digital availability; there are moments I wish I could have experienced live. Its resolution also comes a little too quickly, a little too neat within its digital constraints.

But due to the perceptive sharpness of Parry’s script and the effortlessly affective performances, it is deeply moving. Premiering the day after thousands of deaths were reduced to the public squabble of public schoolboys, a cry of belief and self-determination in Merthyr, after decades of successive catastrophes and indifference, feels like its own little miracle.

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