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Review: The Ballad of Maria Marten at New Theatre

Review by Giddy Pillai

In mid-May 1827, Maria Marten dressed in men’s clothes and met her lover at a red barn in the town of Polstead, with plans to elope. A year later, her body – disfigured, decomposed and stuffed into a grain sack – was dug up from beneath the barn. The Red Barn Murder attracted phenomenal attention. Maria’s lover was tracked down and taken to trial both before the newspapers and the courts. He fiercely protested his innocence but his efforts proved futile and he was sentenced to death. Moments before his execution – which over seven thousand people showed up to watch – he confessed to the murder. Players and bards made street art out of the tragedy; each retelling more sensationalised than the last. Tourists flocked to the red barn and stripped it for souvenirs. When there was nothing left to take, they tore pieces of stone off Maria’s grave, whittling it away. In the centuries since, Maria’s death has inspired books, plays, films and a Tom Waits song. The story of her life has been utterly eclipsed by its horrible ending.

The Ballad of Maria Marten is a work that sets out to remedy some of this. While the play opens at the scene of Maria’s murder, playwright Beth Flintoff chooses not to foreground the crime or the man who committed it. Instead, she carves the centrepiece of her story out of Maria’s relationships with the many women who loved her. The opening moments of New Theatre’s production include a beautiful ritual where these women strip Maria of the clothes she died in, wipe the blood from her skin, tidy her hair and bring her back to life. Restored, she springs into being as someone enterprising, intelligent, kind and larger than life.

We first meet Maria as a ten year old girl who has been dealt her a terribly unfair hand. Her mother has just died, her father is in poverty, and she’s been left to singlehandedly care for a brood of younger siblings. But whatever the world throws at her, she seems to meet it with an irrepressible spirit and a heart that’s determinedly open. She’s the ringleader of the Hazard Club – a secret society of local girls who get up to all sorts of adventures and misadventures, and who have each other’s backs through thick and thin. When new stepmother Ann walks into her kitchen, Maria welcomes her, loves her and is loved in return. Over the course of the play we watch Maria grow up. We see her buy a lifeline for her family with her body and a step up the social ladder for herself with her wit. We watch her get knocked down and then get up again time and again. We see her heart blossom as it falls in love, break as it learns the limits of that love, and dare to get up and love all over again.

The Ballad of Maria Marten deals with some of the heaviest subject matter imaginable, but it keeps love at its core. Flintoff’s script is underpinned by solid research into Maria’s real-life friendships, and the New Theatre cast bring these relationships to life with warmth and authenticity. Naomi Belet’s Maria is rich and nuanced: grounded but hopeful; practical but idealistic; resilient but vulnerable. The women who love her walk tough roads of their own, and collectively showcase the myriad ways in which a woman without much financial security might cope with nineteenth century life. Maria’s ride or die Phoebe (Zarah Stibbard) is warm, honest and present, and has managed to build a life that treats her well enough. Therese (Maddie Sherston) is less fortunate, and wears denial like a suit of armour. Single mother Sarah (Ali Bendall) makes peace with her place on the margins of society, drawing on a strong and independent sense of self to sustain her. Outsider Lucy (Kyra Belford-Thomas) is desperate for a way to fit in. Maria’s stepmother Ann (Jane Wallace) is a woman who’s seen more than her fair share of the world’s harshness, and who has grown ever softer and kinder in response. Each of these ways of being feels like a rational, understandable response to circumstance. Sometimes the different coping mechanisms that the women adopt leads to friction, but Flintoff makes the choice to have them love each other fiercely through it all, never giving up on each other. The result is a powerful portrait of sisterhood and solidarity.

In contrast to the female characters, who feel complex and multifaceted, the play’s male characters are drawn in broad strokes. Rhiannon Jean’s Thomas Corder is a weaselly, opportunistic cad, while Olivia Bartha’s Peter Matthews is chivalrous, dapper and kind. Both are purposefully kept at arm’s length, characterised largely through the eyes of the women. Maria’s murderer is granted no stage time at all. We never witness the abuse that he inflicts upon Maria – instead we see its effects in the way her larger-than-life presence starts to crumble, and in her increasing isolation from the women who love her, despite their best efforts to reach her. It’s a chillingly realistic depiction of domestic violence, which hits all the harder for being told in this way. In a note in the program, director Louise Fischer says that the New Theatre team aimed to ‘create beauty so that it can be mourned’, and I can’t think of a better way to describe what this production has achieved.

As part of her research process Flintoff collaborated with Lighthouse Women’s Aid – a charity that supports women who have experienced domestic abuse – and ran a series of workshops with survivors of domestic abuse. The influence of this lived experience comes through loud and clear in The Ballad of Maria Marten. Play and production reclaim a voice – for Maria Marten herself as well as for the countless other women who experience terrible violence, and whose stories are about so much more than this. In a month where domestic violence has been declared a national crisis in Australia, while public attention continues to gravitate towards perpetrators and their stories, this is a work that feels more relevant than ever.

Image Credit: Bob Seary


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