The Ballad of Maria Marten is the only female power ballad that women everywhere need to hear.
This real-life story might be set in 1827 but this is an all to familiar narrative. Two women a week are killed by a current or former partner in England and Wales alone (Office for National Statistics 2019).
Based on true events, The Ballad of Maria Marten is written by Beth Flintoff who has conducted extensive research including working with the Lighthouse Women’s Aid Charity to help inform the script.
The Red Barn Murder, as it is notoriously known, took place in Polstead, Suffolk in the 19th century. A young woman with her whole life ahead of her waits in a red barn for a man, her life is cruelly taken and her unrecognisable body is found a year later.
This harrowing tale shook the small rural town which saw unrelenting media attention from across the country in the first case of its kind. Numerous adaptations and versions of events followed in the theatre, through song and in writing. Until now, no one has attempted to understand what exactly Maria endured at the hands of a coercive and violent abuser.
We romanticise women’s deaths both in fiction and in real life, we make excuses for the perpetrators and we always favour the male point of view as previous depictions of this sad story have done.
This powerful account, however, explores Maria Marten’s story, told her way. A 6 strong female cast deliver exquisitely compelling performances as a multitude of characters but mainly as Maria’s closest friends.
Women have a long history of living closely, of having tight nit friendships and surviving side by side. Women have long been the problem solvers, the ones who have to deal with the pain, the suffering, the shared secrets of the things that happen behind closed doors.
The way this production has been shaped unites these female actors in voice, body and spirit which becomes the beating heart of the on stage action. And they provide moments of lightness as well as solemnity.
Delicious harmonies and a cappella vocals, composed by Luke Potter, are sprinkled throughout the story, creating spine tingling moments of elation and heart wrenching instances of despair.
Directed by Hal Chambers, this ensemble breathe and move as one, in perfect sync as they move seamlessly from scene to scene.
An eerily simple set, with a barn door and cat walk of light bulbs designed by Verity Quinn provides the perfect backdrop, with slick moving parts of the set transforming the space into different places – it is all we need. The beauty of this production lies in the performers’ ability to captivate the audience and to tell them real stories delivered with real raw emotion.
Elizabeth Crarer is Maria Marten. She provides a masterclass in performance, enchanting the audience into her world, and we live every moment with her.
Only two male characters are depicted in the show and they are played by the female actors. The ultimate villain is never given the power to be depicted on stage, he remains voiceless, though his presence can still be sensed. The malice, hatred and violent force is felt in every in take of breath and physical animation from Crarer as Maria.
Suzanne Ahmet, Sarah Goddard, Emma Denly, Jessica Dives and Susanna Jennings are equally matched. Though there is a range of ages and characters, each have moments of euphoric power and delicate vulnerability.
This ensemble hold up a mirror to the audience, they allow us to see the good and the evil of human nature in equal measure, allowing us to be immersed in to their story whilst remaining a united band of players underneath.
On paper this has all the hallmarks of a thrilling crime drama with multiple suspects, a missing body, and a woman who does not and will not fit in to the societal norm. But this play has a real urgency to it, and a long lasting message that should be reiterated in every ballad that is sung.
The Ballad of Maria Marten plays The New Vic Theatre, Staffordshire until Saturday 29 February.