In the summer of 1827, a young woman’s body was found in a Suffolk barn. Known as the Red Barn Murder, Maria Marten’s death received more attention than expected at the time.
Hal Chambers and Beth Flintoff’s exceptional retelling of the event gives life to Maria’s story, characterising her beyond her murder.
We know the tragic outcome, so this is not a conventional tragedy. We know who dies and we know who does it. The play begins with a dead Maria, bloody and battered, addressing the morbid truth that “it’s been a year since I died”. This allows the rest of the play to focus on her life.
We then enter the vibrancy of her life as the actors sing their ballad to Maria Marten’s life, lacing its narrative with songs that reinforce the strong female companionship we see on stage, their notes carrying the characters’ joy, pain, loss, and hardship.
We get an insight not only into 1820s Suffolk life but, more importantly, 1820 Suffolk life for a woman.
Maria must fend for her family, finding any job she can to provide. Money and class become a constant struggle, and the pursuit of matrimony becomes a social pressure.
The girls start having boyfriends and getting pregnant; their struggle becomes more difficult.
Maria must give in to the pressures of Thomas Corder to feed her family. She goes on to lose a child, and there is a point where she finds real love to Peter Matthews but must let him go for the sake of class and money.
And then, Maria falls for William Corder, the man who will bring her to her downfall. He manipulates her, isolates her from her friends, and we witness Maria’s loss of confidence as she spirals into the grips of his control.
We meet the weapon but not the perpetrator: we meet the pistol Maria is shot with, the spade she is hit over the head with, but we never meet her nasty murderer: William Corder. His absence strips him of power over her story on stage, despite having dictated the conditions of her death. Ridding the stage of male presence speaks back to the patriarchal social system which failed Maria Marten, giving her story a space to be retold.
The multi-rolling in this play makes it a performance which stands on its own as women dominate the stage, playing all nine characters, including two male characters. Together, they tell the story of Maria; a woman who lived, who laughed, who struggled, who cried, and most of all, who loved.
Even though it was her love that caused her downfall, Maria’s social treatment raises questions that make us reflect upon the now, especially in the aftermath of #MeToo, Sarah Everard and the spiking crisis.
The play makes us reflect on whether society does guard its women, has learnt to protect them from the consequences of domestic abuse, or whether Beth Flintoff’s play is not just a retelling of Maria Marten’s life but recalling a frightful fate still lived by many.