The Ballad Of Maria Marten

Arts University Bournemouth [AUB]    Palace Court Theatre, Bournemouth  JJ  14 March 2024


I was very much looking forward to this evening for a variety of reasons. I was intrigued to see The Palace Court Theatre. It is fantastic that AUB have taken on this renovation project and resurrected the theatre when so many performance spaces are closing. Clearly still a work in progress, it is a lovely space (with comfortable seats!). The Palace Court Theatre was the original home of Bournemouth Little Theatre and it was lovely to see this acknowledged with past performance memorabilia. Finally, I had seen and performed in ‘Maria Marten or Murder in the Red Barn’ a silly but fun Melodrama and I was interested to see this modern take on it by Beth Flintoff.

The tale is based on a true story.  In Polstead, Suffolk, a young woman, Maria Marten, was shot dead by her lover William Corder at the Red Barn, a local landmark. She was buried for a year before her remains were found. Corder was subsequently apprehended in London, tried and hanged. This play tells the story from Maria’s perspective.

It was a very effective minimalist set creating one side of the huge Red Barn and evoking a sinister feeling of menace. Costumes seemed in period and just right, though I wasn’t convinced by all the footwear (I’m sure I spotted some suede). As ever the various AUB courses involved in the production held up their parts admirably!

I had read up about the play beforehand and was aware that one of the main themes was about women being in abusive relationships with men. I was prepared for something potentially intense and humourless. I was very pleasantly surprised by Act 1! This was unexpectedly positive and upbeat. We see the struggles of being a poor woman in the early 19th century – lack of money, contraception and societal status. However, the hardship is tempered with joy, laughter and fun.

This is very much an ensemble piece with a largely female cast. There was not a weak link, so I am loathe to pick out anyone. (I did enjoy Nicole Elizabeth’s performance as Ann Marten!) Maria was represented by Dead Maria (Zara Kasiningsih) and Living Maria (Christina Paz) and that combination worked well. However, Dead Maria seemed to spend a good deal of time upstage when she would have been better served at the front of the stage (not used very often) directly engaging with the audience, which would have made her more sympathetic.  Lines from many were at times delivered very quickly at the cost of clarity and projection, particularly upstage.

I liked the opening (repeated at the start of Act 2), with the cast singing a capella to introduce the story in reverse starting with Maria’s death. The singing episodes (sometimes offstage) were effective throughout. It was a lovely act with humour, pathos and poignancy and the full impact of the lives of Maria and the other women with the struggles they had to face was clearly made.

The finale of Act 1 brought us back to where the play started and I was intrigued as to what Act 2 had to offer. Act 2 focused on the abusive relationship between Maria and William Corder (who was only ever referred to and never appeared). Having set things up so nicely in Act 1, the intensity of Act 2 seemed designed to do what many modern playwrights feel obliged to do, which is to ram home the point, to the detriment of the point! The sudden deterioration of Living Maria into a seemingly drug-addicted depressive victim seemed barely credible compared with the convincing intelligent woman of Act 1, who successfully navigated two previous relationships (one of which, we are told was one of real love).  This is primarily a writing issue, though the message would have been more powerful had it been directorially toned down. Indeed, though still supposedly in period, Act 2 had a much more modern feel to it and I wonder whether Beth Flintoff should have just set the whole story in a modern setting.

Despite my reservations about the play itself, it was a thoroughly enjoyable evening. It runs for another two nights (15 – 16 March) and I would recommend it. I very much look forward to future AUB Productions at The Palace Court Theatre.