The Ballad of Maria Marten: Interview with writer, Beth Flintoff
How did you find out the story of Maria Marten? Did you know it before you started work on the play?
Ivan approached me after seeing another play that I had written, which was set in the early 12th Century. He told me about the story of Maria Marten and asked if I’d be interested in writing a new play about it. We met in Polstead, Suffolk to walk through the village, and I was fascinated. In particular Ivan wanted the story to focus on Maria because so many versions of this tale are centered around her murderer, William Corder.
What research did you do for the show?
I stayed in Ipswich for a bit and spent a while walking around the village of Polstead, trying to get a sense of how she lived her life. I visited all the locations of Maria’s life that I thought would be mentioned in the play: Layham, Sudbury, Hadleigh. I went to the Moyses Hall Museum in Bury St Edmunds, which has relics relating to the murder, and the Records Office in Ipswich to look at newspaper reports. I talked to local people to try and understand what everyone thinks now (the answer: everyone that knows of it has a different version!). Then I spent a lot of time in libraries: the University of Sussex Library, the British Library in London and the Bodleian in Oxford.
There are many accounts of the story, some from the time of the murder and some much more recent – they are all very different. Some are truly horrible about Maria, others make her out to be an angelic village maiden. One offered ‘hints to the ladies’ on how to avoid marrying a murderer in the future. Several anxiously urged women not to be so promiscuous, to avoid being murdered themselves. None suggested that men stop murdering. Needless to say, I could not find any contemporary accounts written by a woman.
Then I put all the research aside and tried to think about her as a person. Who does she love, what do they talk about, what does she do when she’s having fun? I didn’t want her to be a victim any more. Maria emerged as intelligent, brave and wryly funny.
What do you hope people will take away from The Ballad of Maria Marten?
First of all, I hope the audience enjoys themselves! That’s my number one job really. It’s not a laugh-a-minute sort of play but you can still enjoy a story even if it’s full of sadness. But also I hope they enjoy watching these actresses, as I have, working together to tell this story about a woman who has somehow got lost in the retelling of her own murder.
Secondly I hope they feel that the story is still relevant. On average, two women are killed every week by their partner or ex-partner in this country. I feel increasingly that this story is not about the past but the present: how are we going to let women speak for themselves when there is so much history of being ignored? I feel very optimistic for the future – I think things are going to change, and it’s wonderful to be living in that change. But it’s going to take work.
The Ballad of Maria Marten is showing at Theatre by the Lake from Tue 29 March – Sat 2 April, book your tickets here.