The Ballad of Maria Marten

New Vic Theatre until Saturday 29 February 2020

The daughter of a mole-catcher, 25–year-old Maria Marten was brutally murdered and buried beneath a barn in rural Suffolk in 1827. Her body was discovered a year later and the trial and subsequent hanging of her former lover attracted massive popular fascination. The many ballads, plays, and films which have indulged this interest over the years have focussed on the perpetrator and the gruesome. There has been curiosity, not mourning.

Beth Flintoff and Eastern Angles, touring with a gripping new production, have turned that on its head. As the play builds to its climax, a doomed Maria turns to her audience, the house lights are raised briefly, and she challenges directly: “You’re here to see me die. You won’t mourn me. You’re just curious.”

How wrong she was. Thanks to Flintoff’s inspired script, deeply sympathetic direction by Hal Chambers, and strong performances from the six-women cast, we had come to care profoundly for Maria Marten.

Maria Marten ( Elizabeth Crarer) All images by Tony Bartholomew

True to form, the play does open with a young, battered-to-death female body. Within minutes, though, five of Maria’s friends surround this body and tenderly restore it to life. As they replace Maria’s tattered clothes and wipe clean her wounds, the ten hands – and five voices singing acapella in exquisite harmonies – caress her with love. It’s a beautifully staged transformation back to a carefree youth which is full of joy and laughter.

We see strong relationships forged between the girls in their secret childhood ‘Hazard Club’. They take risks (“Phoebe swallowed a frog”), they support each other, and their movement is full of dance. Then “Sarah kissed a boy for a dare and decided she liked it, and now she’s having his baby, and we discovered we were women.”

Sarah Stowe (Suzanne Ahmet) and cast

With the joy of romantic love and the pleasure of sex come harsher experiences, and three babies for Maria. The first results from her desperate strategy for feeding her starving family, the second from a doomed affair across heartless social barriers, the third from a relationship of coercive abuse.

Elizabeth Crarer gives us a Maria who is complex, with wit and generosity towards others but also contradictions and very human impulses that resonate with timeless sympathy. As the darkness starts to overcome her (“I must be a very wicked person. Sometimes I doubt him and then he gets so upset”) her descent into destructive self-blame as she falls prey to the controlling power of her murderer is utterly convincing.  

Ann Marten (Sarah Goddard)

Suzanne Ahmet plays friend Sarah with a winning sassiness (“I’m living my life as brazen as I like”). And Sarah Goddard as Maria’s stepmother Ann is both loving and lovable as she supports Maria throughout her life and long after her death. The gorgeous harmonies of composer Luke Potter’s songs are intimately integrated with the story and the women’s ultimate solidarity.