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Join Hunters Hill Theatre in uncovering the secrets of The Ballad of Maria Marten

Quick blurb of the show In the red barn a dark secret lies waiting to be discovered… “It’s been a year since I died and still nobody has found me”. Maria Marten awaits her lover. A year later, hidden under the barn floor, Maria’s body is found. This emotionally-charged play focusses on Maria’s life rather than her gruesome death, shedding light on a story of love, loss, prejudice and patriarchal power.

Name of interviewee + role in production Jennifer Willison (director); Jade Rodrigues (Lady Cooke); Niamh McKervey (Peter Mathews)

Tell us a bit about yourself? 

Jennifer: I started in theatre bossing other children around in my plays in kindergarten. I trained in London as a dancer graduating through musicals to acting. I was a props girl, stage manager, lighting operator and costumer before starting my fifty years directing.

Jade: I am very new to theatre and acting in general, having just begun last year (2023). It’s something I’ve wanted to do since I was a kid. When I first started university, I joined the Sydney Uni Drama Society (SUDS) but never went to a single meeting because I was too scared. That was nearly 25 years ago! Even when I went back to uni in my thirties I still didn’t get involved because by then work and family commitments, on top of studying (again), dominated my time. Suddenly, now in my 40s I’ve had to ask myself; ‘What the hell are you waiting for? Just do it woman!’. So, I did. And I’m loving it! 

What I love the most about theatre is seeing how the different elements come together to tell a story - The set design, the costumes, the lights, the sounds and music. Although I’ve always known this to be true at a cerebral level, it wasn’t until I donned a costume and stood under those lights for the first time that I truly understood how wonderfully immersive the experience is, and how important it is for bringing a character to life. It is a blessing to be able to experience theatre from this perspective. 

Niamh: I’m the eldest sister of three, with an innate love for art. I get my love for film and television from my father, it’s something we’ve bonded over my entire life. Whilst I’ve wanted to act my entire life, I only got into it about four years ago when I started studying a Diploma of Film, Theatre and Television at the Academy of Film, Theatre and Television. It introduced me to the beauty of theatre, and I’ve been hooked ever since. This is my dream, and I would love to do it for a long time – if I’m lucky.

What can audiences look forward to when they come see the show?

Jennifer: Coming to see The Ballad of Maria Marten the audience will see what

theatre was originally about. It tells a true story through comedy and tragedy,

like Shakespeare’s plays, performed on a thrust stage, and making a

comment on life.

Jade: This show is eerie and electrifying.  I think audiences will laugh and cry and feel a little bit spooked! 

Niamh: A well written and beautifully directed play. Jennifer has constructed an amazing set and cast – whilst navigating the tough nature of the play. It carries humour and harsh truths so well, without taking away from the seriousness of the very relevant issue of domestic violence.

How has been the rehearsal process?

Jennifer: Our rehearsal period has been an absolute delight. As “an oldie” working with this young talented cast who have worked so hard shows me the young are so dedicated and creative about community theatre. I think the audience will enjoy every actor’s portrayal of their character. They’ve each made their role absolutely their own. And, as usual, they just

couldn’t do that without a first class crew to back them up. We are so lucky to have Jenny Barnes (production manager), Moja Band (assistant director), Liz Grindley (stage manager) and Wayne Chee (lighting designer) in their various roles.

Jade: Challenging. There was so much I didn’t know when I joined this production (and so much I still don’t know). Something I have learnt is that acting is the last thing that happens on stage (at least for me it is) because there are so many other things to think about first. I literally stumbled my way through the rehearsal process, but I can say that it’s all been worth it! I am very grateful to have had such a patient and supportive team around me.

Niamh: It’s been rewarding, but also tough. The nature of the play is emotional, but it has been spectacular to watch all the girls grow within themselves and the characters to make an absolute cracker of an ensemble and smash the play out of the park. It’s come together so smoothly, and I can’t wait to see the audiences response to a subject that is juggled so well within reality and humour.

What do you like about the show? Why did you choose to be involved?

Jennifer: I chose this play because of beautiful way it’s written but also because it challenged me. Staging a play with a large cast on a small stage (and with even smaller dressing rooms) with music, song and dance. But the biggest challenge for me was the gender blending which I have not been a fan of. This play was especially written for only women which I had to honour. Luckily the cast “just went with it” so I had a lot of help.

Jade: I got involved because I love stories that compel me to wrestle with my own assumptions about myself and of the world. When I first read the script, I was immediately drawn to the character of Lady Cooke. Initially, I was appalled by her, but then I realised how complex she is. She is a woman who is just as much a captive of prevailing social structures and attitudes as she is a defender of them. Although this story is set within Georgian times, I can see that in many ways not much has changed. We tend to position victims of violence as being ultimately responsible for their experience. Like when we ask, ‘Why were they walking in the park alone?’ or ‘Why didn’t she leave that person sooner?’.  Sure, I’m no Lady Cooke. I’m not wealthy and I’m not powerful in the same way she is, but this story has shone a light on my own privilege and biases. And that’s what I like about this show!

Niamh: I am incredibly passionate about stories lead by women and topics such as domestic violence, so I was thrilled to be involved in an all female cast. The female characters are so multifaceted and grey – there's so many points throughout it where you just want to scream at them, but also are so empathetic of their journeys.

Other than yourself, which cast member do you think audiences should keep an eye out for? Who is really bringing it?

Jade: Can I say ‘everyone’? This cast is amazing! They are all so talented and I’ve learnt so much from them. I think the person to look out for is the person you won’t see, and that’s Wayne who will be behind all the lighting and sounds. Even at rehearsals when I’m backstage I feel spooked, and there are times when I get goose bumps, particularly in one very special scene!

Niamh: It’s a tie between Laura Stead and Jade Rodrigues for myself. Laura is absolutely phenomenal as Maria, and the changing nature of the character throughout the play is so extensive – Laura absolutely nails the progression and the downfall of Maria’s spirit. Jade has grown so much over rehearsals, and absolutely nails Lady Cooke. She really embodies the aristocratic nature of the character, her accent and manner are just perfect.

What do you want the audience to think about? What is the message of the show?

Jennifer: Unfortunately, the subject matter of this play “domestic violence leading to murder in 1827” is still relevant today. How sad is it that we haven’t learnt anything in the past 200 years. I’m sure the audience will leave the theatre thinking about the irony of this subject matter.

Jade: There is so much going on in this show! I would like the audience to think about friendship and the way that, even under very trying circumstances, people can love, laugh and dance with each other. I would also like the audience to think about how violence impacts communities and the hidden capacity of those we deem to be weak to come together to support each other and to fight back.

Niamh: The bravery of women, and the how special female friendships are.

See Hunters Hill Theatre's production of The Ballad of Maria Marten this June from the 7th-23rd. Please use this link for ticketing and futher information.

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