Song of experience

A new play about a real-life 19th century murder celebrates the life of the victim rather than dwelling on her gory death, and also comes with a very modern message

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It’s summer 1827 in a rural Suffolk village and Maria Marten awaits her lover in a red barn. They are planning to elope. Following their disappearance letters arrive home, assuring her family she is in good health. But Marten doesn’t send them. One year later her body is found buried in the barn.

“She had a lot of injuries,” says Beth Flintoff, who has adapted the true crime for the stage. “She was shot but also partially strangled, and seems to have been hit with a spade.”

The evidence overwhelmingly pointed to her lover, William Corder, who had borrowed a spade from Marten’s friend on the day of the crime, and a huge manhunt ensued. He was tried, found guilty and executed.

“It became a massive story to the Victorians. They got really interested in it and thousands of people attended the execution at Bury St Edmunds. It was in all the papers and people were obsessed with it – quite a dark obsession,” says Flintoff, whose research led her to a book about the murder that’s bound with Corder’s skin. His Jack the Ripper-like celebrity holds strong in the local area, she says, where people still argue his innocence. “They got really into the gory telling of the story and somewhere along the way Maria’s story got lost.”

Flintoff’s play, The Ballad of Maria Marten, rectifies that, focusing on the victim’s life rather than her murder. It’s a harrowing and complex tale of love, loss, prejudice and patriarchal power.

Flintoff says. “There were lots of melodramas about the case but they were all very strange takes, some almost gruesomely comic. So my job was to centre her. What was she like? What did her family and friends think? What was it like to be a girl growing up in this rural village in the 1820s?”

Maria talks to the audience after her death. “We wanted to have as much joy as possible because she didn’t know she was going to be murdered so up until that point the story really is about her and her friends and her stepmother and the life they make together – the choices they make, their friendships.

“I wanted to celebrate her as a person. There’s no question she was very intelligent, witty, determined to try and make her way. She had a lot of ambitions for her own life. I wanted to celebrate those and I wanted the play to not be really sad because she didn’t spend her life being sad.”

After spending time with women who’d experienced domestic violence, Flintoff chose not to include violence in the play to avoid anyone being “horribly triggered”. Audiences do see Marten becoming increasingly confused as events lead towards her death.

“Maria was clearly in what we would call a coercive controlled relationship, where he told her things that weren’t true and she believed him. One of the things he told her was because she’d had three illegitimate children, although two of them had died, and one of them was his, that she would be arrested. He made her very scared. He told her all sorts of things and she got very confused right at the end of her life.”

The play features an all-female cast and is a clarion call for an equal and safe society.

“When we go to the theatre we witness a story all together and there’s such power in that that we missed during the pandemic especially,” says Flintoff. “Sadly Maria’s story is still incredibly relevant. There are still people in coercive controlling relationships. People are still killed by their partners. Some people don’t know they’re in that sort of relationship so you hope that by sharing those stories and talking about it from a different viewpoint we can understand a bit more, recognise it for what it is and be strengthened in future decisions.”

The Ballad of Maria Marten is at the Lowry, Salford, 21-25 Sept ( 

Photo: Tony Bartholomew

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