By Liz Turner
The tale of the last woman to be publicly hanged in Dorset will hardly be a bundle of laughs but Angel Exit Theatre has managed to add humour while maintaning the poignancy of the event.
Martha Brown was born in 1811 and grew up in the Marshwood Vale in West Dorset.
In this story, the spirits of those who have already met their end by the hangman’s noose, re-enact Martha’s story with her in the hours before her execution, explaining how she was catapulted from ambitious milkmaid into the ‘monster’ murderess.
Angel Exit Theatre, through its expertise in telling stories through physical ensemble theatre, present a sympathetic picture of poor Martha as a victim rather than a villain. She had been a respected wife and then widow before marrying a far younger man who beat her and abused her until she killed him in a moment of rage.
Clever use of a multi facetted set, props which always seemed to have more than one use, meant the versatile five strong cast could keep the action moving. Musical instruments ranging from violin and accordion to bells create the original music to help tell the ballad, complete with macabre songs.
Most of the cast play more than one role and recreate rural village life by portraying cows and even a horse. A lump of dough represents a baby and when cut in half, two babies. But amongst the humour there are reminders of the dark story. The maypole has hangman’s nooses rather than ribbons.
The company makes great play of the links to Thomas Hardy. He was in the crowd attending the ‘hang fair’ in Dorchester where Martha Brown met her end in 1856. He was aged 16 and 70 years later wrote to say that he was ashamed to be there. “I remember what a fine figure she showed against the sky as she hung in the misty rain, and how the tight black silk gown set off her shape as she wheeled half-round and back.”
His experience are said to have influenced his characterisation of Tess Durbeyfield from Tess of the d’Urbervilles, and she has a part in the play.
It’s an clever script written by Angel Exit Theatre directors Tamsin Fessey and Lynne Forbes, along with Amy Rosenthal. Lynne Forbes is also excellent as poor Martha, dignified to the last.
At the end, the audience becomes part of the 3,000 strong mob who watched the hanging, and as Martha’s black mourning dress swings from the rope, she joins the white faced spirits as we always knew she would.