The Death of Maria opens with a scene of domestic serenity: Maria, a contented German housewife living in 1593, is quietly sewing while she thanks her beloved husband Thomas for the flowers he has bought her. The conversation is mundane, relaxed, affectionate – not so different from that of a modern-day couple. Until witches are mentioned. Suddenly this world seems distant and unreal, one in which child cannibalism and diabolical pacts are discussed as accepted realities.
The play, written and directed by Camilla Rees, was inspired by the real story of a single woman named Maria Hollin, who was accused of practising black magic in 1593. Like the Maria of the play, she refused to confess to anything until the ninth time she was tortured. Much of the script comes directly from the original trial documents.
Most of the play consists of Maria’s lengthy interrogation which, although convincingly acted by Evie Ioannidi as the afflicted woman, seems a little repetitive. Although the incessant questioning from the ferocious interrogator (Andrew Dickinson) makes the scene more realistic, a little variety in the dialogue would have made it more engaging. The interrogator is not the only weary one when he declares, “I grow tired of repeating myself!” The sense of reality is also undermined by a script that is, at times, somewhat clichéd. Though Maria has an air of historical authenticity, the glib lines of the interrogator belong to a horror film villain, not a 16th century witch hunter.
What The Death of Maria captures brilliantly is the eponymous character’s horrific mental breakdown: at first she is unerring in her claims to innocence, but by the end Maria has lost that sense of integrity – she blames herself for the four years she has spent in prison, and poignantly tells her husband (a brilliant Jordan Reed) “I don’t feel anything anymore”.
The Maria we saw at the beginning has disappeared, suggesting that the Death of the title is more symbolic than literal. Remarkably, her body has survived the torture – only now she must face notoriety and ostracism, a fate perhaps worse than death.
The play often uses a split stage to heighten this sense of alienation – characters on one side comment on Maria’s imprisonment whilst the accused herself stands alone, unable to directly answer their malicious speculations.
The Death of Maria flits wonderfully between certainty and doubt. Everything that seemed certain at the beginning has come into question by the end: Maria’s innocence, her husband’s undying love, the support and power of her father – all can be doubted at some point. It is this powerful depiction of the changeability of what we consider to be certain that makes The Death of Maria well worth seeing.
The Death of Maria is playing at the BT Studio until Saturday 2nd November. Tickets are available here