Every three days a woman is REDACTED by a man
Women are most likely to be REDACTED by their partner or ex-partner
Six women are REDACTEDevery hour by men worldwide
Approximately 85,000 women experience REDACTED or attempted REDACTED in England and Wales every year.
The words ‘killed’ and ‘raped’ are never said aloud in Lucy Kirkwood’s short play Maryland, but we can all intuitively fill in the blanks.1The weight of sexual violence hangs thick in the air of this Royal Court production. Staged in October 2021, just a week after the trial and sentencing of serving London Metropolitan police officer Wayne Couzens for the rape and murder of Sarah Everard in March 2021, the play echoes the culture of violence against women that is so prevalent in the wider world.
I want to use this article to try and capture this feminist performance, one that responded so directly and urgently to police corruption and sexual violence against women at a time when feelings of anger and rage were so collectively high. Specifically, I want to argue that redaction is used as a dramatic technique in Maryland to emphasise the unspeakable horror of sexual violence and push the audience into collective modes of feeling that could lead to political resistance. The use of redaction in Maryland also draws attention to a shared embodied knowledge among audience members, by making the unspeakable nature of sexual violence known and felt in alternative and politically powerful ways.
Kirkwood wrote Maryland in two days. Galvanised by the murder of Sabina Nessa—a 28-year-old woman who was murdered in a park in south-east London in September 2021 while it was still light outside—what had been an array of thoughts accumulated over several years became a fully formed script. The way Maryland responds to an immediate and rage-filled cultural moment reminds me of what Sara Ahmed describes as a ‘feminist snap’.2We snap, suggests Ahmed, when we reach our breaking point: when something or a collection of things happen that bring the reality of living in a sexist world to the forefront of our minds, we can no longer ignore it. For Ahmed, the temporality of snapping is crucial to its power. The snap is harsh and loud, but it is also optimistic and potentially transformative.
Ahmed’s ‘feminist snap’ evokes connotations that express the political efficacy of Maryland. Like a snap, the use of redaction in Maryland is quick, loud, responsive, and demands attention. It could be said that Maryland responds to a feminist snap, as the killings of Everard and Nessa caused wide-spread protests particularly in London and across the UK. But I would argue that Maryland acts as a continuation of the snap itself. It creates a place to hold that anger and resistance, and to keep up momentum.
Eight women purposefully walk onto the stage with chalk. One of them writes ‘POLICE STATION’ on the floor in the middle; another marks two lines on the floor to cut off the area where the police station now is. A third woman writes ‘STREET’ on the other side of the line on the floor, marking this area too. They sit side by side: the police and the street. One is traditionally seen by some people as being safe while the other dangerous. Now, for women, there is no distinction between the two. Neither of these places is safe. The actors have scripts in their hands: this is urgent. This had to happen now—lines learnt or not. One of the women has written ‘FURIES’ on the back wall, and three women take their seats in the chairs at the back of the stage: they are the chorus. The cast is importantly and intentionally diverse in terms of age, race, and ability. The cast and director change over the course of the performance, which draws attention to the message rather than the directorial choices or specific actors. The play demonstrates how sexual violence impacts everyone and therefore needs to be represented as such through diverse casting and directing.
Maryland carries two different co-existing narratives. There are the more naturalistic scenes between the police and two women, both named Mary, who have both been sexually assaulted. Then there are the Furies, who narrate some of the action between the Marys and break away from the story to engage the audience in a series of statements about our lives, experiences, and environment. At various moments in the performance, they ask the audience to rank how much we agree with a statement on a scale of one to five using our fingers. These statements range from the mundane and humorous—‘I sometimes smell my neighbours’ cooking and think “that smells really good, I wish I was having that for dinner”’—to the horrifying and confronting—‘how sure can you be that if you were murdered and the police found you, that they wouldn’t take pictures-slash-selfies with your dead body and share those pictures-slash-selfies on a WhatsApp group?’ Here, Kirkwood is directly referencing an incident where police officers took selfies with the dead bodies of Nicole Smallman and Bibaa Henry—two sisters who were murdered in south-east London in June 2021. These statements force the audience to confront our own lived experiences of how we move through the world, what precautions we take for our safety, how we relate to others in the shared spaces of our cities, and what some of us take for granted.
The narrative involving the two Marys ends with them standing outside the police station, ready to be taken home after attempting to identify their attacker to no avail. The two Marys talk about what happened to them: how they were just walking home, or popping to the shop to get a drink, how it wasn’t even dark outside, not really. Eventually, after waiting ages for a lift home, Mary 1 decides to walk, despite Mary 2 warning her of the dangers after everything that’s happened. Mary 1 goes home anyway, leaving Mary 2 standing alone. The police officer finally arrives to take Mary 2 home. The audience start to get the feeling that this Mary is in much more danger than the one who walked home. The police officer removes his cap to reveal a Y-shaped scar on his forehead: the same scar the two Marys describe their attacker having earlier in the play. He tells Mary he is very sorry about this and orders Mary to get in the car.
The rest of the play is a rage-filled rallying cry from the women on stage. The action is taken out of the fictional as we start to hear facts and figures about violence against women. As the extended monologue continues, with cast members speaking lines alone or in pairs but more often as a chorus, their collective voices get progressively louder and angrier. This climax feels more like a protest chant than the final monologue of a play. It reminds me of hearing the feminist activist group Sisters Uncut address the people gathered at Sarah Everard’s March 2021 vigil in Clapham Common, with the intention to stir up emotions, to urge us to be rightfully furious. The play ends on this tone of rage: there is no resolution, but there is a solidarity found in a collective fear, pain, and anger.
Redaction, affect, and knowledge-making
On a systemic level, redaction is connected to corruption, abuses of power, and cover-ups. We have seen this play out in recent cases of police violence and misuses of power in relation to violence against women, and Maryland explicitly critiques this. The way redaction intersects with state violence is insidious. Often, if the violence is acknowledged, the perpetrator or the system that enables the perpetrator is obscured. Concerns around ‘women’s safety’ are highlighted, but not until extreme violence has taken place, and without acknowledgement of what or who creates the danger. This speaks to how perpetrators of violence, particularly sexual violence, are protected by a system which will cover up their names, while a victim (like the two Marys who come forward) must make themselves fully visible. While institutional harm is given the benefit of the doubt, redacted, or covered up, victims must prove their trauma in the ‘right ways’, lest they be accused of lying or worse. Maryland pushes back against this institutional gaslighting, secrecy and culture of cover-ups, and uses redaction as a theatrical tool for critique.
The theatricalising of redaction as sound not only means that the words themselves are redacted—meaning the play will literally not repeat or reproduce their violence—but it also speaks to how women themselves are redacted. Their experiences and voices are erased, not listened to, and ignored every day.
That sound has stayed with me from the Royal Court production. That [ ] sound. That distorted, layered, blood-curdling scream that we hear instead of the word. It sounds like a woman screaming. It sounds like nails on metal. It sounds like extreme feedback from a blown-out amp. It sounds like panic and fear. The sound is piercing and shocking—it demands a response from the body. As an audience member, the sound made me jump and shudder every time. There’s a vibration to the noise that persists and stays within my body. With each repetition, the feeling intensifies: the theatrical device of redaction pushes for feeling. It demands that we listen, feel, and keep on feeling.
Every three days a woman is REDACTED by a man
Every three days a woman is REDACTED by a man
Every three days a woman is REDACTED by a man
It could be said that hearing the furies repeatedly speak the words ‘raped’ and ‘killed’ would be unsettling enough without the need for a deeply visceral and disturbing sound effect. However, I believe the power of redaction in this instance. Replacing the words with a sound that aims to symbolise the horror of these acts provides the audience with an opportunity to re-sensitise and re-focus from the blur of everyday headlines, trials, debates, and lived experiences associated with sexual violence. The daily reality of living in a patriarchal society for those of marginalised genders takes an emotional toll. We become numb to the statistics; we share stories of harassment that seem mundane; we turn away from the headlines. Toni Morrison emphasises the importance of continuing to remain shocked in the face of systemic racism and state violence. In an interview with Jana Wendt, Morrison said, ‘I insist on being shocked. I am never going to become immune. I think that’s a kind of failure: to see so much of it that you die inside. I want to be surprised and shocked every time.’3The piercing sound acts as a device to shock the audience into looking. It compels us to stay there, with each other, and feel it. One of the aims of Maryland was to create a theatrical space where people could feel something together. This instance of redaction and the play itself forces the audience to anger and outrage. Much like a feminist protest, its aim is to conjure up collective feeling that might lead to collective action and resistance once the performance is over.
The sense of feeling collectively is another key aspect of this instance of redaction. The fact that everyone implicitly knows what words the sound is replacing demonstrates how redaction can reveal shared knowledge. The collective knowing that the redaction draws attention to—we don’t need to hear the words, we know what they are—reminds the audience of our shared lived experience that has provided us with embodied and alternative ways of knowing together. Sara Ahmed explains how ‘knowledge cannot be separated from the bodily world of feeling and sensation’.4 The sensation of collectively feeling the weight of sexual violence through the repeated noise connects the audience not only to our own embodied archive but to each other. As feminists, feelings are what move us to action and sustain us, because the injustice that is happening demands a response. The harshness of the redaction in Maryland demands a response too: it enables audiences to maintain feelings of anger and rage together that might foster resistance and solidarity at a time of despair and desperation.
Watching Maryland brought back memories of standing in the cold on Clapham Common, listening to Sisters Uncut speak to the crowd gathered for Sarah Everard’s vigil. The vigil was highly policed: police brutally criminalised the act of being, feeling and grieving together. This act of feeling together was treated like an extreme threat by the police and the state. It is therefore powerful that Kirkwood invites the audience of Maryland to feel collectively, to heal from the hurt, and to generate further action: to continue the feminist snap and to continue to be shocked.
I don’t think Kirkwood’s techniques of shock and anger are the only ways to tackle these issues and foster solidarity. In fact, I think it is also crucial to have more subtle, loving, fun, and tender ways of fostering feminist solidarity and community in the face of such violence. But instead of universalising or generalising issues about women’s safety, Maryland explicitly responded to the affective register of the outside world and offered redaction as a way to understand how these senseless acts of violence sit in a wider history of violence against women and police corruption. The play captured a moment of affective outburst and acted on it. I hope I’ve captured something of that moment here.
Isabel Stuart is a third year PhD researcher at Queen Mary, University of London. Her research focuses on the value of feelings in contemporary feminist performance and the political potential of these affective encounters. Her methodological approach is concerned with valuing the thoughts and feelings of the audience, and her work sits at the intersection of audience research, affect studies, and feminist theory.
- Lucy Kirkwood, Maryland, dir. by Vicky Featherstone, Lucy Morrison and Milli Bhatia at Royal Court Theatre, London, October 2021. ↩
- Sara Ahmed, Living a Feminist Life (Durham: Duke University Press, 2017), p. 187. ↩
- The Post Archive, Toni Morrison interview, online video recording, YouTube, 22 May 2019, < https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WoTELoC8Q0M>, [accessed: 3 January 2021]. ↩
- Sara Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion (London: Routledge, 2004), p. 172. ↩