Watching Glory Die – theatre review

When journalists are all but banned from prisons in UK, art such as this serves an even more important service, writes Victoria Seabrook

Watching Glory Die play Judith Thompson canada prison

Guards stand back and watch Glory die. Photograph: Manuela Chastelain

The story of Watching Glory Die is a difficult, shocking one. But it is important it is told because the fiction is sadly all too close to the truth.

Written by Canadian playwright Judith Thompson, the play is based on the true story of a 19 year-old Canadian, Ashley Smith, who choked herself to death while her guards – on suicide watch but ordered not to act unless she stopped breathing – stood by and did nothing.

In Palindrome Productions’ reimagining of the story, the main character, Glory, winds up in a Canadian young offenders’ institute aged 14 after throwing crabapples at a postman. Subsequent minor episodes of bad behaviour – such charges as talking too much – keep adding 60 days onto her sentence. Until one day she is 19 and promising her mum to be good during the final 27 days until her release. Of course the audience senses that this is when it will all go wrong.

Watching Glory Die

Watching Glory Die

All three characters – Glory, her mother Rosellen and the correctional officer Gail – are played by the same actor, Victoria Fox. The casting reminds the audience how anyone could wind up in the their position: the officer in a moral dilemma, caught between moral instinct and her boss’s orders, the mother frustrated by the opaque, uncommunicative and unfair prison system, and of course the disruptive but sweet young Glory, whose behaviour and mental health problems spiral under the pressures and pains of incarceration.

Fox’s performance as Gail improves, is better as Rosellen and excels as Glory, the 19 year old who has grown up in an institution, still daydreaming of Harry Potter and fantasy crocodile stories.

Playwright Judith Thomson impressively manages to weave humorous moments into the script, which are a welcome light relief. A highlight is Rosellen narrating a relatable teenage daydream of her childhood crush, who once, yes, shared a pair of earphones with her on the school bus.

Watching Gory Die Judith thompson play canada prison

Watching Glory Die

The funny moments fade as the script grows more intense, flitting faster between the characters, mounting the moral quandaries and intensifying the despair of all three characters.

It becomes a difficult watch, which works thanks to its run time of just 75 mins: a short, sharp shock to the system. The sparse stage design of a few symbolic items – glasses, letters and crabapples littered in a semi-circle behind Fox’s performance space – suffice for the short production and are amply symbolic.

In a time when journalism on the criminal justice system is heavily restricted, a play such as Watching Glory Die is even more valuable for monitoring those in power, providing a forum for public criticism and telling shocking stories.

Context: child and female imprisonment in the UK

“I found [the play] shocking but I didn’t find it surprising,” said Juliet Lyon, director of Prison Reform Trust said after the performance. She added: “which is worrying”.

During the question and answer session that followed the play, Lyon described how the themes of self-harm, mental health problems and difficult family relationships run through the real lives of women in prison in the UK.

She reeled off statistics about women in prison in England and Wales: 46 per cent have attempted suicide at some point in their lives; they represent 5 per cent of the prison population but account for almost half (47 per cent) of the incidents of self-harm; theft is the most common offence for which women serve custodial sentences.

Lyon recounted tragic stories of women she had met in the UK criminal justice system.

One woman she met had no eyebrows or hair. Lyon learned the woman had set fire to herself outside under a tree near a police station. That woman had been imprisoned for criminal damage to the tree. “It was so desperate and so awful and she was so ill, so distressed,” said Lyon.

The population must be drastically reduced and women’s centres – which provide addiction treatment, mental health and domestic violence support and so on – must be better funded, Lyon urged.

Watching Glory Die runs only until 23 July, but the company plan to tour in the UK later this year.

Watching Glory Die
19-23 July, £10-14
Cockpit Theatre, Gateforth Street, Marylebone, NW8 8Eh
For more information visit palindromeproductions.org



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