She walks home at night with keys gripped between white knuckles. Wrapped up to the neck in a puffer jacket, quickening her pace in the darkness between every streetlight. The emphasis is clear: she did everything she was 'supposed to do', took all the precautions that women are taught to take from when they are little girls. But it doesn’t matter. As long as the responsibility is on us rather than the men who inflict the pain or the institutions that protect them or the culture of violence that enables it all, it will never matter. All these very pertinent conversations are thrown up in the BBC’s Maryland, a 30-minute television adaptation of a play that was performed at London's Royal Court Theatre in 2021. Written and directed by Lucy Kirkwood, it sums up all the fury, exhaustion and exasperation felt by women in these trying times.
Zawe Ashton and Hayley Squires both play women named Mary who meet one night at a police station in the wake of their respective sexual assaults. Upon arrival, a male police officer (Daniel Mays) discourages them from talking to each other as he doesn't "want [them] to risk the conviction" but it’s clear from the outset that it’s to isolate them and avoid the realisation that what happened to them is endemic of something that is broken in the culture of the country and system.
The process that follows is dehumanising. The police officer laughs cheerily, commenting on the coincidence of processing two Marys at the same time for the same thing, not noticing that this points to how commonplace sexual assault is in the UK (one in four women have been raped or sexually assaulted as an adult). The women try to identify images of men in a lineup and have photos taken of their bruises in a cold, clinical room.
One of the most striking elements of the short film is the presence of a chorus of modern-day Furies alongside the scenes in the police station (in Greek mythology, these are goddesses of vengeance and retribution). They appear in a group but are everyday women – teachers, cleaners, students – and they all make statements steeped in heartbreaking accuracy, weighted with real life.
"I feel safe in my daily life and never wonder why I’m so obsessed with podcasts about serial killers," says one sarcastically. "In my postcode there is regular and satisfactory collection of household refuse, recycling, green waste and…male rage," states another. In a direct reference to the murders of sisters Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman and the horrifying revelation that Met Police constables distributed images of their bodies on WhatsApp, one Fury looks down the camera and says: "If I was attacked and left for dead I could not guarantee the police wouldn’t take photographs of me/selfies with my dead body and post them on WhatsApp."
Maryland flits between dramatic theatrical scenes akin to its stage origins and gut-wrenching scenes of realism, as when one of the Marys folds up her bloodied T-shirt in the aftermath of the attack. It acutely summarises the pain and constant fear written into the hearts of women everywhere after the 2021 murders of Sarah Everard and Sabina Nessa, and of Zara Aleena in 2022. By the time it hurtles towards its powerful but stomach-churning ending, you only feel one thing and it is white-hot indignation.
"When you really dig down, I think some of the focus needs to be not so much on what Wayne Couzens [the former police officer convicted of the kidnap, rape and murder of Everard] specifically did but the culture that enabled that to continue for so long," explained Lucy Kirkwood in a Q&A with the BBC. "This is a howl against the normalisation of male violence. That some of the behaviour we know he was exhibiting could be absorbed by an institution that is meant to be protecting all of us, is the really egregious thing ... It’s this normalisation that happens at a very early age for girls, what is expected of us and we just accept, even accommodate, rather than challenge."
At one point in Maryland, one of the Furies lists all the various levels of harassment that women are used to receiving, which might not necessarily constitute assault but we are told to swallow and accept: "We do not want a fumbled flirt, or an unwanted hug, unfamiliar text message, being watched while we eat an ice cream." It brings a jolt of recognition because we have all been on the receiving end of such unwanted attention.
"It’s a plea for empathy, and what it’s like to grow up with that," continued Kirkwood. "The speech that Danny [Mays] delivers so beautifully [in the film] about his mother, saying there’s a space women inhabit that I can’t really be bothered to go to there. I’m really grateful for all our male allies. But there’s a spectrum of [at best], laziness, and at worst, a wilful ‘don’t want to go there’. I’d love that to shift. It’s a problem we all share, not just women."
Maryland is available to watch on BBC Two and BBC iPlayer on 20th July