The Ballad of Maria Marten
Wilton’s Music Hall
Reviewed – 15th February 2022
“An undoubtedly compelling and timely story, told with a fine balance of edge and heartiness“
“It’s been a year since I died and still nobody’s found me.”
There’s a reason murders are generally told from the perspective of the murderer, obviously because the victim isn’t there to tell it. So Beth Flintoff’s The Ballad of Maria Marten is necessarily told from the grave. Based on a true story, Maria Marten herself guides us through the loves, heartbreaks and societal failings that led to her violent death.
I’m embarrassed to say I had never heard of Maria Marten, or the Red Barn murder as it’s otherwise known. Particularly so as that’s where my partner is from, and apparently that’s what the tiny village of Polstead is largely known for. That and cherries.
In fact, it’s been a popular story since the days of the trial in 1827, with songs written about it- one by Tom Waits- and multiple TV, film and radio adaptations. But under Hal Chambers’ direction, this production has taken a lot of risks in order to contemporise, the first and most overt being there are no men in the cast. Not only that, whilst Maria’s former lovers are played as bit-parts by the all-female cast, William Corder doesn’t even get a look-in, remaining an off-stage character throughout. This is especially interesting because, as with most tales of murder, adaptations and retellings have been largely focused on him over her.
Accents are all over the shop which does get to be quite distracting- there’s a little west country, a little generic northern, some south London, even a bit of Irish, often combined in a single sentence. But the performances themselves are generally strong. The cast at their most powerful as a chorus: As the title suggests, the story is punctuated with ballads, sung in tight six-part harmonies. These are some of the tenderest and most affecting moments, giving the sense that whilst women like Maria have been largely lost to history, there is in their place a kind of communal voice of mourning. This is amplified by synchronised intakes of breath that feel as though Maria’s plight belongs to a multitude.
I have a bit of a bee in my bonnet about adults playing children, and there’s a lot of it going round at the moment- The Book of Dust at the Bridge Theatre comes to mind, with a twelve-year old being played by a twenty-something. I do see the necessity in this case: they’re children for very little of the story, so it’d be a waste to double the cast. Regardless, it’s near impossible to do well and feels a bit embarrassing.
Verity Quinn’s costumes and set are kept fairly traditional: a dilapidated barn wall looms over the stage throughout and the cast all sport bonnets and aprons. The story’s contemporary slant generally sits comfortably against this conventional backdrop, but there is some anachronism that doesn’t feel quite right. One of the characters, for example, is an empowered woman who loves sex and whose children each have a different father. I understand the impetus to modernise in this way, but it feels particularly bizarre given that Maria suffers the harsh judgement of the village for having children out of wedlock herself.
The ending too feels uncomfortably positive, where a more truthfully bleak conclusion would have better served the point of the story. That being said, it’s hard to keep an audience hooked when they know from the get who was murdered and, half-way through by whom, which this production does. An undoubtedly compelling and timely story, told with a fine balance of edge and heartiness.
Reviewed by Miriam Sallon
Photography by Mike Kwasniak
The Ballad of Maria Marten
Wilton’s Music Hall until 19th February then UK Tour continues. See www.mariamarten.com for details
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