Sarah Crompton on Lucy Kirkwood's Maryland: It's impossible not to be angry

The 30-minute piece is playing at the Royal Court

Lucy Kirkwood and the Royal Court
Lucy Kirkwood and the Royal Court
© Left: Dan Wooller, right: Ungry Young Man (flickr, CC BY 2.0)

The morning after seeing Lucy Kirkwood's Maryland, a rehearsed reading of a half-hour play written as a "howl" of anger following the murder of Sabina Nessa and the rape and murder of Sarah Everard, I turned on the radio.

There, on the BBC Today programme was a woman talking about the way a police officer flirted with her when she was reporting her violent mugging at the hands of four young men. It had uncanny half-echoes of the events described in the play I'd just witnessed at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs, underlining its necessary topicality.

But it also made me think about how often Kirkwood's writing lingers outside the theatre, helping me shape and understand what's going on in the world. Chimerica informs my thinking about US and China relations to this day; the under-valued The Children haunts me when I contemplate climate change and ecological disaster.

She is a writer utterly with her finger on the pulse, but more than that, she is someone with a rare ability to tease out thoughts around the edges of things, those nagging collisions and coincidences, those threads of concern that illuminate the central issue.

Maryland may have been written in just two-days and may be being staged by a rolling cast of actors, and a team of co-directors made up of Milli Bhatia, Vicky Featherstone and Lucy Morrison, but it has the force and fury of full-realised drama. We've been asked not to review it as such, but the interest around it – its sold-out run has already been extended to October 23 – is huge.

It starts simply enough, with the cast walking on and chalking names on three areas of the stage: the street, the police station, and – behind a line of women sitting on chairs – The Furies.

This chorus of women bear not only a close relationship to the avenging goddesses of Greek drama (originally conceived as the ghosts of the murdered) but also to everywoman. Their testimonies and their questions about the violence that men – "not all men" – wreak on women provide a commentary that runs alongside the narrative action where two women who have been viciously assaulted are reporting the crime to the police.

The language is scalpel-sharp; the way the police substitute inappropriate small talk for empathy, the constant conditionality about the possibility of justice. The women are told they mustn't speak to each other, because they don't want to prejudice a trial. "If there is one." They are belittled even while they are supposedly being helped.

Meanwhile, the Furies ask us to think about our relationships with our neighbours, how we feel when we walk down the street. When they are not doing this, they are relating horrifying statistics including the fact that one in 40 women aged between 16 and 24 are raped or sexually assaulted by penetration each year. Their words are punctuated by a truly unbearable metallic sound effect (sound design by Elena Peña) as a substitute for the words ‘rape' or ‘murder'.

The culminative effect is as devastating as a punch to the solar plexus. We know all this stuff, we weep for the murders of women such as Sabina Nessa and Sarah Everard, for the suffering of their families and friends. Yet to see the ills that underlie and allow them woven together into such a powerful drama is still shocking. It asks why we are not more angry; at the end of this scalding 30 minutes, it's impossible not to be.

Kirkwood is making the play available for free for six weeks to UK theatre companies and drama organisations, with the venue also emailing the script to anyone who requests it. It deserves to be as widely seen as possible as part of the catalyst for change.