Eastern Angles have built a reputation on taking classic East Anglian stories and giving them a new twist. Over the years the theatre company have entertained and intrigued audiences with their unique versions of local history. “Productions that spring to mind are our 1980s show ‘Boudicca’s Babes’ where we dressed our feisty Boudicca in a Jean-Paul Gaultier-style bustier, as worn by Madonna,” remembers Development Manager Karen Goddard, “then there was our take on the Sutton Hoo story where the characters were larger-than-life Ealing comedy Lavender Hill Mob lookalikes, and most recently Hal Chambers directed our production Ragnarok where a thumping soundtrack, eerie puppetry and high-energy physical theatre all staged in a former aircraft hangar bought the story of the Norse gods bang up to date.”
The latest story to get the Eastern Angles treatment is the infamous murder of Maria Marten. This well-known cause célèbre has had audiences gripped ever since the crime took place back in 1827. The hanging of the murderer, William Corder, at a gallows near Bury St Edmunds was attended by hundreds of ‘tourists’ who travelled from miles around and the grisly details of Maria’s death and her burial under the floor of pan-tiled barn in the village of Polstead have been repeatedly dramatized and interpreted in a sensational ‘Penny Dreadful’ fashion.
After spending years steering clear of the story, for fear of treading on old ground, Eastern Angles have finally decided to tackle the tale head on, commissioning a brand new and very timely script that will resonate with modern audiences. Playwright Beth Flintoff was approached by Eastern Angles and asked to come with a version for an all-female cast, and the resulting play Polstead can be seen in July at The Undercroft in Peterborough as part of a wider tour.
“As soon as Ivan (Eastern Angles’ Artistic Director) approached me to write the story of Maria Marten I was intrigued,” says Beth. “I hadn’t heard about the murder, but I was fascinated to hear not just the story itself, but about how it has been told to us – in the past the focus has always been on the murderer, not Maria.”
In order to write the play, Beth immersed herself in research, spending time in Suffolk wandering around the village of Polstead and further afield, retracing Maria’s steps. She visited the British Library and Suffolk Record Office to read original accounts of the murder and the trial, and spent some time working with a group of women who had all survived domestic abuse.
“Then I put all the research aside and tried to think about Maria 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. As a result, my Maria emerged as intelligent, brave and wryly funny, just like the survivors I met.”
Eastern Angles hope that Polstead will give audiences a glimpse of what life was like for young women growing up in a rural village like Polstead during the 1820s. With its references to weavers’ riots and threshing machine protests it certainly sets the socio-economic scene. But for playwright Beth Flintoff, the story’s contemporary resonances are equally important.
“I feel increasingly that this story is not about the past but the present,” says Beth. “How are we going to let women speak for themselves when so much history is 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 so often we are presented with stories of women as a ‘victim’ rather than as interesting, complicated people who had friends and lives of their own”.
Polstead can be seen at The Undercroft at Serpentine Green Shopping Centre from 18-21 July 18. Tickets: www.easternangles.co.uk or ring 01473 211498