Writer: Beth Flintoff
Director: Hal Chambers
Music: Luke Potter
It’s the early 1800’s and Maria Marten is dead. Murdered. She was strangled, shot her in the neck and, finally, bludgeoned with a spade. It takes over a year for her small farming village to realise she’s dead and for her body to be found. We’re told this by Marten’s bloodied corpse in the opening moments of The Ballad Of Maria Marten, before being taken on a snapshot journey through her short-lived and tumultuous life.
This story has already been told many times, through melodrama, film and song. But this new version by Beth Flintoff is a feminist retelling. Told in three acts, The Ballad is a journey through the key moments of Marten’s life that leads to her murder. Act One serves to reveal who murdered Marten. Act Two looks at how and why. And Act Three delivers an emotional and judiciary resolution.
Billed as a thriller, it would be wholly inappropriate limit this play to that single genre. This is no Agatha Christie whodunit. Whilst Marten’s murder is the anchor point, the real story in Flintoff’s retelling is the lives of poor women in 19th century rural England.
What her script delivers is an unflinchingly raw portrayal of women in that period: second-class citizens with no education or opinion and a life where domestic abuse was commonplace. Her script shows a rounded life focussed on Marten and her group of friends. Lighter and happier moments of the group’s life are tempered with a near- always present darker undercurrent that lets the audience know that these moments of joy are probably not the norm.
Chambers’ direction balances the narrative beautifully between the humdrum daily life, the highs and lows of adolescent womanhood and the pressures and perils of adulthood. The focus here is not the sensationalism of a murder mystery but rather a pointed and subtle look at the underlying social system that enfeebled women.
The cast each deliver pitch-perfect performances with most taking on multiple roles, including the few male characters. But it is Elizabeth Crarer who steals the show as the fun-loving but ultimately tortured Maria Marten. Her performance is effortless in Marten’s happier and carefree times and slowly builds a dark and brooding intensity as she transitions to the emotionally battered and confused woman prior to her death.
The masterstroke of this production, however, is the use of music. Luke Potter’s modern-folk soundtrack underpins several scenes, giving them deeper emotional resonance. A number of times, these musical backings move to the fore and the cast pick them up and break into song. It’s done so naturally and effortlessly, that it elevates the scenes rather than distract.
The Ballad of Maria Marten is based on a true story that became one of the biggest stories in the 19th century. What’s unsettling, however, is how significant it is today. You could easily pick up the story and drop it many landscapes and it would be just as realistic. And, especially with the recent #MeToo movement shining a light on similar issues, this is no less believable in our so-called, developed world.
The Ballad would have been a solid watch by just focussing on being a thriller or on attacking the patriarchy. But what is presented is a more balanced and nuanced story that gives us the thrills of a whodunit with a powerful social commentary.
Runs until 19 February and continues to tour