The Ballad of Maria Marten review – joyous play gives life to murder victim

The history books are rewritten in this luminous, compassionate production about the Red Barn murder in Suffolk. Beth Flintoff tells the story of Maria Marten, who was shot in 1827 in the village of Polstead, and buried for a year before her remains were found. Focusing on her life rather than her death, Flintoff restores dignity to Maria, who became the grim fascination of public gossip after her murder.

With an all-female cast, the play is unexpectedly joyous. We see the struggles of being a poor woman in the early 19th century – lack of money, contraception and societal worth – but where there is dread, grief and violence, there is also joy, laughter and dance. We get the pleasure of seeing Maria be happy. Elizabeth Crarer plays her with open wit and sharp ferocity; she is both easy to love, and quick to love others.

Laughter and dance … The Ballad of Maria Marten has an all-female cast. Photograph: Tony Bartholomew

This is not a story of murder, nor a true crime investigation; we never even meet the man who did it. At its core, this is a story of female friendship. Particular moments of Hal Chambers’ tender direction resonate: the women wiping blood from Maria’s face, doing her hair, holding her hand. Shards of light scatter as they sing to her, bathing her in comfort; it is the women who look out for her in life and who keep looking for her after her death.

The play has much in common with Hallie Rubenhold’s landmark book, The Five, which tells of the lives of the five women murdered by Jack the Ripper. These women, and Maria, are remembered for their brutal deaths at the hands of men, but Rubenhold and Flintoff rewrite the narrative. Flames lick at the stories that history has held on to, as instead of bloodied corpses, we get to see full-bodied women – vibrant and complex – with their lives of infinitely more value than their deaths.

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