Touring – reviewed at James Hehir Plaza, Ipswich Waterfront
Founding this touring company 36 years ago, Ivan Cutting swore a great oath that one local story they wouldn’t do was Maria Marten, murdered in the Red Barn by William Corder, and famous not least for the spooky circumstance of her body being found buried there a year later after her stepmother was guided in dreams.
The 1827 sensation spawned several Victorian plays and adaptations and a silent film, generally adjusting reality to make her more of an innocent, and her killer more of a toff. But this is a good moment for female indignation, so up she comes again in Beth Flintoff’s spirited new play. It is directed by Hal Chambers who brought this company that terrific Prudencia Hart and the elaborately bonkers Norse saga Ragnarok, and is superbly staged by Verity Quinn.
Maria (Elizabeth Crarer) takes centre stage from the first electric moment when, a ragged, battered and rotting ghost, she strides defiantly forward to reminisce about her killing by pistol, strangling and spade. She observes that in the moment of death she, at last, realised that she was not mad or criminal as Corder persuaded her: guilt was all his, not hers. Around her from the shadows come five other women, friends from her childhood who tenderly lave and dress her, singing in harsh simple harmony (Luke Potter’s music, folk or bluesy, adds a great deal to the atmosphere and so does very effective lighting and a simple barn frame).
The six-woman cast evokes Georgian village life with glee: children playing, farmwork, chickens fed and seeds sown, gnawing breadline anxiety about work, orphaned ten-year-old Maria keeping house for her father the molecatcher and coming to affectionate terms with a stepmother. Adolescents, the girls josh about kisses and more, excited by the new two-shilling contraceptive sponge.
Lydia Bakelmun as Sarah embarks cheerfully on serial pregnancies as they discuss “bastardy orders” for their support, repressed shy Lucy (Lucy Grattan) is more prim and churchy ,though the religious sensibility of an 1820s rural community is oddly underemphasised. That, however, is probably because a strength in the play is this sense of female solidarity and peasant confidence that all in all, a baby is an asset to the hardworking community, even on the wrong side of the blanket.
Maria, in a time or particular hardship, submits unenthusiastically to Thomas Corder the tenant farmer’s son in return for farmwork and bread (Lucy Grattan , with a quick gender switch is oddly convincing as the man). Maria bears his child, which dies: the social hierarchy is nicely nuanced when up at the manor Lady Cooke (Bakelmun , again neatly transformed) nods at the relationship and takes up Maria as a protegée. But of course she is then horrified when the village girl falls in love with her own brother, a cut above mere farmers (another gender switch as Bethan Nash strides on in smart breeches) . Milady makes her give him up, his baby lives and he supports them from a distance. But when predatory Thomas Corder dies, Maria disastrously falls for William Corder, his brother.
And he is the killer , but before that does the adept “gaslighting” hinted at in that opening scene, persuading her into paranoia and conviction that she , not he, kills their baby. We never see him: only Maria’s dissolution. Flintoff, having worked with Lighthouse Women’s Aid and discovered the many parallels over what “coercive control” does to women, resolved not to give Corder a voice but to take Maria through the now well-attested stages of confusion and self-laceration. Dramatically it is very effective that we don’t see the villain. However, the final twenty minutes of discovery, anger, grief and divisions among the surviving friends do take away from the dramatic energy of the play, which up to then was so bracing. The characters are still strong and coherent, but the anti-coercion message gets hammered home just that bit too hard. Cut ten minutes to sharpen up that ending and it becomes a very fine and honest play. But even without that surgery, it’s well worth catching on its tour. A few more days in Ipswich (nice tent on university dockside campus). For the rest – link below:
to 5 August