Eastern Angles Polstead play uncovers the real Maria Marten during summer tour
- Credit: Archant
Maria Marten and the Red Barn has been an important part of Suffolk folklore for the past 200 years but who was the real Maria Marten. Arts Editor Andrew Clarke joined the cast of Eastern Angles summer show Polstead to find out
Maria Marten and the Murder in the Red Barn is one of the best known and most oft-recounted tales from Suffolk’s larger-than-life, 19th century past. Was it a crime of passion or an evil deed committed by a deranged madman? It doesn’t matter – in the words of famed film director John Ford: “if the legend is better than the truth, print the legend.”
This was certainly the case for the newly created Penny Dreadful news-sheets which seized on this story as soon as it broke and some have argued helped trace murder William Corder to his new address in London where he had advertised for a wife.
The case was a cause célèbre and at the trial the judge. William Alexander, announced that he was unhappy with the coverage given to the case by the press which he felt was to the “manifest detriment of the prisoner at the bar”.
The case has attracted so much interest over the years because it happened as part of a scandalous, illicit affair, that Maria Marten, a young serving girl was many years Corder’s junior, and that when her body was discovered, not only did it have numerous injuries, including a gun-shot wound to the head, but she was disguised as a boy. It was said that she and Corder were planning to elope to Ipswich.
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At least, that may have been her plan but Corder was known as both a liar and a charmer and may have been stringing her along. Having seduced her, people have speculated that he was planning to get rid of her, freeing him to have an affair with someone new.
Whatever the reason for the murder people have remained fascinated with the crime for more than two centuries and it has become an integral part of Suffolk folklore. But, according to Eastern Angles artistic director Ivan Cutting, sometime the truth is indeed better than the legend.
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He said that playwright Beth Flintoff had been researching the story, wanting to shine the spotlight back on Maria and turn her back into a three-dimensional woman rather than just a victim. As part of the research, she went back to the original court documents and there found Maria Marten, the real Maria Marten, described to the court by her family and friends.
The result of her research is Eastern Angles summer play Polstead,, which takes its name from the village of Maria’s birth, and the scene of her death at the hands of William Corder in the Red Barn.
The play is special because the play has an all-female cast, it focuses on exploring who Maria was and asks the difficult question of: ‘Why was she at the barn?’
The cast certainly have plenty of ideas of what sought woman Maria Marten was. Armed with Beth Flintoff’s articulate, funny and moving script, they have a portrait of a self-assured, bright, resourceful woman, anxious to better herself and yet, at the same time, vulnerable having just lost the hand of her true love, Peter Matthews, an important local land-owner, when the community showed the pair its disapproval and convinced them that people shouldn’t marry outside their class.
Elizabeth Crarer, who plays Maria, says: “I think we all understand that we can never really know the real woman, but, from what Beth has discovered, I think Maria was a woman who was trying to make the best of her situation. She was still trying to recover from the failed relationship with Peter Matthews. I think it was true love for both of them and she was going to marry him. He was proper local gentry and that was just a step too far for the guardians of public morality at the time and they were forced apart.
“She’d had a child with Peter Matthews and even afterwards there was clearly a strong bond between them because he continued to pay maintenance for the child. But, when she met William Corder and was charmed and seduced by him, she thought she had a ticket out of Polstead but she didn’t.”
Lucy Grattan, who plays William Corder at some points during the show, is clear that her character had no real long-term interest in Maria. “He was a charmer and a liar. He was well known locally for saying the first thing that came into his head. He wasn’t even consistent with his lies but apparently he could sweet talk people into doing things for him. He was regarded as a lovable rogue until he killed Maria but even then people wondered if, because he came from a prominent local family, whether he was quickly smuggled away to London before the murder was discovered. Certainly, before he disappeared he gave several inconsistent explanations to Maria’s whereabouts.”
Lydia Bakelmun and Sarah Goddard chip in : “even Corder’s sister said in testimony that he was a liar and other people in the village said he statements read out in court that they didn’t trust him.”
Elizabeth Crarer sums up the play: “I think we want to give Maria a voice, let people get to know her, rather than just have her be a victim in a murder mystery or a who-dunnit. The focus has been on William Corder for too long and on the gory details of the murder. We wanted to celebrate this remarkable woman, which we can thanks to Beth Flintoff’s wonderful play, which is funny and moving as well as shocking in places, but also it gives a great picture of rural life at the time with a real sense of community and some wonderful singing and dancing.”
Polstead is Eastern Angles summer tour from July 11 to August 5. Tickets and venue information can be found online easternangles.co.uk/whats-on