The mysteries around the 1827 murder of a 25-year-old country woman from rural Suffolk have survived the Victorian era as the Red Barn Murder and led to several stage and screen adaptations already – but too much focus was put on the murderer, playwright Beth Flintoff realised whose play is dedicated to the actual victim, and premiered in 2018. Police receiving calls about domestic violence every 30 seconds during lockdown made her then stage her historical play again, this time as a revival director herself. With the decline of mental health, social services and monetary support to those who rely on this most, The Ballad Of Maria Marten is scarily up-to-date.
Rarely do we find a play opened by the murder victim herself, not by someone who clearly did not survive or lived to tell the tale. Angrily, she accuses the audience of not being here if she had grown happy and old, or were at least alive a few years longer. In 1800s England, penniless girls were workforces, not humans empowered to have hopes and dreams. Raising them meant choking any spark of ambition in them; social orders are not to be questioned by stepping out of the world they were born in. To these piously bonneted maidens, Australia is as far as the Isle of Wight, and picnics described in Jane Austen’s literary delights are fairy tales of almost unreachable gentry, and reserved for the few who can read anyway.
But life is not without joy for the teenager Maria: Village fairs, cherry picking and the secret Hazard Club she founded with her girlfriends offer relieve from tedious domestic labour, build companionship and provide harmless thrills from walking backwards to eating frogs and singing filthy songs about lobsters. Outside of their little community though, every action is closely observed and followed by life-defying consequences: Violence, job loss, pregnancy, shame, child death, broken promises and the undeniable duty of being devout, thankful for being alive nevertheless and under any circumstances loyal to family members, employers and husbands, no matter how abusive these are. Because the power unbalance is part of God’s plan and convenient for those reminding them. This is the only definition of “love” society entitles them to: Without education, physical and societal movement there is no alternative but to comply, even if this means lying to friends, to family and authorities and denying everything what ever matters to them. Reaching womanhood without any status, money or ambassador means they are toyed around in the best case, but mostly cheated at, robbed of dignity and the little belongings they have access to, gaslit to painful guilt trips and self-denial while under the constant, very real risk of abuse from every ankle. Scenes of sex and violence (and both) are performed alone, never exploitive but scarily believable. The all-female casts switches between roles, genders and their different characteristics at a mind-blowing speed – they all do this fabulously, and that is a real ensemble achievement which will dominate my personal post-show talk when walking back to London Bridge station through the rain.
The setting, the village Polstead is an actual place, and Maria Marten was a real human being, her murder a crime that happened. How her body was found, why she was wearing man’s clothes and why that barn burned are questions that have led to often tasteless speculations during the last almost 200 years – the distribution of over-sensational fake news is not a recent invention to make money.
On stage we see how a woman once full of courage and love for the humble life she could expect to live, but who is now alienated from everyone who ever mattered to her, a shadow of herself, a personation of exposed loneliness and despair. Her friends can hardly reach her, and they know their voices will matter nowhere. And they all have too little to risk losing it. However late their actions are in the end, they will not forget her friend.
200 years later, people binge-watch killer documentaries after work to get their head free, and news reports still refer to “family tragedies” and “relationship dramas”. I am glad that one of my favourite London stages, Wilton’s Music Hall, is as good as sold-out tonight – surely, they have not all come to see London’s worst kept secret venue, which originally in 1859. Let Maria Marten’s ballad be a reminder to not ever look away.
**** out of 5 stars
The Ballad Of Maria Marten was written by Beth Flintoff and performed at Wilton’s Music Hall in February. The tour continues through March.