Suicide rates in Canadian prisons are seven times higher than in the general population. One in ten inmates commit suicide in a psychiatric facility and 22% kill themselves when they’re being held in isolation.
Watching Glory Die – surely one of the best show titles on this year’s Fringe – is based on a true story of a teenage girl, held in a young offender’s institute until she was 18, then handed over to an adult prison. Ashley Smith choked herself to death in an Ontario prison, aged 19, in 2007. The prison guards were warned that her repeated suicide attempts were attention-seeking and should be ignored. Then one day, she succeeded. More than ten years on, her mother feels that circumstances in Canadian prisons, particularly for those with mental ill-health issues, are little better.
This is a powerful topic. Writer and director Judith Thompson created the piece to draw attention to what she calls “patriarchal fascism”. Her play features three characters: teenage Glory, gradually losing her grip on reality; her increasingly anxious mother and one of the prison guards, Gail, charged with watching Glory in her cell, theoretically to keep her safe.
Not-for-profit company Windsor Feminist Theatre‘s production is neatly choreographed, cutting smoothly between locations as the parallel stories run their course. Meaghan Carpentier produces an elegant set – the prison cell outline reminiscent of barbed wire was a lovely touch. Kelli Fox as Glory’s mother is a touching narrator, voicing the writer’s conviction that if “Glory” had been born male, her behaviour would have been attributed to a boisterous personality rather than criminal intent.
Kathryn Haggis as Gail is believably, if disturbingly, matter of fact about her role in the prisoner’s treatment. Her performance is entirely assured – so her panic at the thought of unpaid bills is all the more touching. And Nathanya Barnett is superb as Glory: vulnerable, calculating, furious and terrified by turns as her grip on reality gradually eroded.
Somehow, for a retelling of a heart-rending true story, the play as presented doesn’t fully realise the potential emotional punch. For three women trapped in their respective ways in an unsupportive system, there is an odd absence of frustration, although the writer might argue that the tragedy lies in the fact that they all are ultimately victims of a sytem that doesn’t respect or value women.
The play isn’t particularly well-served by the technical team in this performance, unless the tardy light cues and inconsistent sound effects were intentional. But this will get ironed out over another couple of performances. Teething troubles aside, though, this is a gripping piece of theatre telling a vital story that should be aired inside and outside of its Canadian home.