It’s strange that one of the best things you’ll see on TV all year should never have been made. Lucy Kirkwood, the Olivier Award-winning playwright, wrote Maryland for the stage last year, in response to the murders of Sarah Everard, Sabina Nessa, Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman. It took her just 48 hours, crystallising from a mix of anger, sadness and exhaustion. After a scratch-style run at The Royal Court Theatre, the BBC has made it into a film, so that anyone can watch it. And everyone should.
Directed on screen by Kirkwood herself and documentary-maker Brian Hill, Maryland is a 25-minute jolt; the world it occupies is an uncanny one. All the women are called Mary, for a start. Zawe Ashton and Hayley Squires play two women who meet at a police station, where they are both reporting an experience of sexual assault. Ashton’s Mary is shell-shocked. She cries tears of frustration when faced with an identity parade of hat-wearing men; her attacker had a scar on his forehead. Squires’ Mary is full of simmering fury, unwilling to give up on walking home alone in the dark. They are cajoled into small talk by a police officer called Moody (Daniel Mays), who is wistful but incurious about the fact that his mum – also called Mary – always seemed anxious and worried.
An all-female chorus of furies tear through the scenes, running through a tick-list of worries, from the comical to the catastrophic. They break the fourth wall, whispering in libraries, scrubbing toilets, loading shopping into the car. “I feel generally safe in my normal daily life and never wonder why I’m so obsessed with podcasts about serial killers,” says one. “If I was attacked and left for dead, I cannot guarantee the police would not take photographs slash selfies with my dead body,” says another, in reference to the PCs jailed for sharing images of the dead bodies of sisters Henry and Smallman. Their words build into a furious monologue, in which they recite statistics, but the words “rape” and “murder” are replaced by a jolting, scraping sound. They ask: why are women so killable?
As a live, theatrical experience, Maryland was raw and risky; it gave me shaky knees, a racing heart, hot cheeks. On screen, with a bigger canvas, it’s become completely assured in its power, at once more intimate – the dreadful poignancy of Squires folding her clothes to give to the police as evidence – and more fortifying. Far from gratuitous or despairing, it finds humour in the misery and manages to make us feel galvanised. That it should be funny is perhaps, in an odd way, not so surprising: the situation seems absurd. As the furies say, we live in a world where it’s possible “to get two billionaires to space and back in safety”, but a woman can’t walk five minutes from her house without coming to harm. That should be unbelievable. It leaves us with a vision of a different world, where women aren’t scared. A world where this film would never have needed to be made.
‘Maryland’ is available to watch on BBC iPlayer