The Ballad of Maria Marten

Eastern Angles Theatre Co, Theatre by the Lake, Keswick
March 28, 2022

The media love to sensationalise a gory murder case, and the same was true almost 200years ago when William Corder was found guilty and hanged after the body of a young woman was found under the floor of a Suffolk barn.

The coverage was excessive even by today’s standards. Ballads were written, stories sold in their millions, the murder became the 19th century’s most popular entertainment, featuring in operas, plays and even Dickens’ own magazine, The Strand. A century later, films were made, folk songs revived, books debated guilt and innocence focusing on Corder’s confession.

Who was Maria Marten, and why did she die, are the questions instead being posed by writer Beth Flintoff who became fascinated by the other side of the story. She’d found contemporary hints to women to beware marrying a murderer, how to avoid promiscuity to be safe, how to avoid being murdered themselves. None, she found, suggested that men stop murdering.

And where have we heard that recently? So Flintoff’s all-woman cast (directed by HalChambers) take the legend into their own hands, literally, and the result is neither comforting nor comfortable.

Maria (Elizabeth Crarer) is feisty, indefatigable, irrepressible, loving and loved by her friends(Hanora Kamen, Susie Barrett, Jessica Dives, Bethan Nash) and her stepmother (SarahGoddard). Initially, briefly, they seem to be living uncomplicated lives in a Hardy-esque world where couplings and birth and death are the stuff of daily existence; one said she prized a good vegetable patch over virtue. A world where a woman will wish of her friend’s baby: “I hope it lives”.

Maria – who can read, and has imagination – is the figurehead of their childhood secret gang. The individuality of their characters shines through a symbiotic sisterhood; these areall performances of brilliance and raw emotion. And each in their own way is affected by the carelessness, the callousness, the arrogance or the malevolence of men.

They are victims, even strong Maria, who survives two unequal relationships and the death of a baby, before succumbing to the coercive control of a manipulative and violent man. The terrible expediency of love, she calls it. In his presence, she says, she becomes a shadow, tries to take up less and less space. For how many victims of domestic abuse is this true? And how many women in such situations then start, as Maria did, to doubt their own sanity, to believe that they are bad, that they are the ones who might harm or kill their own children. Here in this telling there are so many brutal truths about men and women. Oh, and just as many about wealth and poverty.

Only two men make an appearance in these women’s lives here, and both are played by women. The protagonist himself is never seen, but his presence is felt vividly through both the script and the raw physicality of these performances.

There are moments of joy, when the women sing together in harmony and rhythm that leaps from the very core of their being. And there is, ultimately and dramatically redemption, but even that comes through an act of criminal vandalism. The women, together, become strong enough to rise above all they’ve experienced but going through that process with them is tortuously painful.

The Ballad of Maria Marten plays at Keswick until Saturday April 2.