Rage, fury and noise – the new wave of feminist theatre is more vital than ever

·5-min read
<span>Photograph: Gareth Fuller/PA</span>
Photograph: Gareth Fuller/PA

If you’re a survivor of male violence, reading Lucy Kirkwood’s “howl of a play” Maryland is a visceral experience. To hear it out loud, I imagine even more so – the Observer’s theatre critic Susannah Clapp described the experience of attending a reading at the Royal Court as “only the second time in 20 years in the stalls that I and another critic (female) have clutched each other in fright”. Maryland was written in two days after the killing of school teacher Sabina Nessa, months after Sarah Everard had been raped and murdered by a police officer and in the year that two Metropolitan police officers pleaded guilty to misconduct after sharing photos of the murdered sisters Nicole Smallman and Bibaa Henry on a Whatsapp group. The officers have now been sacked.

Maryland is 30 minutes of pure anger. And what woman hasn’t felt angry this year, about the continued toll that male violence takes upon our lives? Maryland’s chorus of Furies (at least three, but 100 is better, the script advises) could be any one of us. “Not all men,” they chant, “but … if I gave you a box of 10 Maltesers and told you two of them weren’t Maltesers, they were very small balls of human shit, would you feel a bit anxious while you were eating or would you just crack on?” The word “rape”, meanwhile, is obscured by a scarcely human scream, an “unbearable noise”, a metaphor for the unspeakable pain and fear it wreaks on so many women’s lives.

Related: ‘This had to happen now’: Lucy Kirkwood on Maryland, her 30-minute ‘howl’ of a play


Maryland sold out when it was performed in an extended run at the Royal Court in October. Usually with contemporary drama, that would probably be the end of it for a while, but Kirkwood has waived performance rights for November, meaning anybody can perform it this month, with the result that, amazingly, Maryland is being performed all over the country, from Cardiff to Edinburgh, Manchester to Brighton, Newcastle to north Wales, its furious words spoken by many different women, its message ricocheting and resonating across the land in a startling act of resistance. Donations towards survivors’ charities are encouraged in a way that resembles how benefit performances of The Vagina Monologues have been performed globally.
Feminist theatre has always had radical potential, prompting as it does what used to be called “consciousness raising”, the hope being that audience members leave a performance determined to enact change, committed to speaking out. “Look how the play has galvanised theatre makers all over Britain,” Bridget Foreman tells me – she is directing the play for York’s Riding Lights Theatre Company, which is staging readings this Friday at the Friargate theatre. “We want to shout, to protest. We want audiences to go out and do the same in their way: in their families, workplaces, friendship groups. We want far more than ripples of applause. We really believe that this play can stir people to change how they think about what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour, and what they can do about it.”

Maryland’s furious echoes are a powerful argument for relaxing rights to works that confront social issues, so that they can be seen by diverse and geographically diffuse audiences. At the heart of Kirkwood’s play is an understanding of how male violence and the experience of it can manifest differently among women, with certain lines being reserved for women of colour, such as: “Because if your bruises don’t show like a Caucasian, you are not believed like a Caucasian” and “If I was attacked and left for dead I cannot guarantee that the police would not take photographs/selfies with my dead body.”

From its beginnings, feminist theatre appreciated the importance of first-person testimony (Kirkwood says that everything in the play is based on real-life events). In the 1980s my mother was part of the feminist theatre group ReSisters (no relation to the current campaigning group of the same name embroiled in the trans rights debate), a multicultural co-operative of women who used personal experience of male violence to create shows, including with women in refuges. (Some of the self-defence she learned with ReSisters she passed on to me, and in the autumn of 2010, when I was attacked, it saved my life; proof, if you need it, of how such groups can affect change in our lives.)

Feminist theatre was thriving then in the 1970s and 80s (in London thanks to funding from the GLC before it was abolished by Margaret Thatcher) and its resonances live on in art and literature. Bernardine Evaristo’s phenomenally successful Girl, Woman, Other draws on that period of activist theatre and on black women’s experiences (the section about the gang rape of a schoolgirl remains one of the most powerful, distressing evocations I have ever read), Rebecca Watson’s novel Little Scratch, about a woman trying to go about her day in the aftermath of a rape, has been adapted into a play at Hampstead theatre. Could we be seeing another wave of resistance? The dissemination of Maryland seems to indicate that we might.

These days there is a far more mainstream understanding of the mechanisms and manifestations of police violence than there were even when I was younger, as a result of Black Lives Matter and a number of high-profile cases that have seen women and their allies react in fury. As Foreman says, “Real-world change starts at a grassroots level. If criminals can hide in the police force, then individuals need to come together to raise their voices in outrage and in protest. Theatre helps us imagine such protests. Theatre helps us to imagine change so we can implement and live it.”

  • Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is a Guardian columnist and author

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