“Our major and abiding goal is giving voice to the dispossessed – those written out of history. Live performance has the ability to wake the dead and let them speak,” explains Lesley Ferris, director and co-founder of British-American company Palindrome Productions. “It’s always a highlight for us to witness the astonishment of audience members at seeing a living history about which they knew little if anything: the history of the British actress and suffrage, for instance, or the British history behind Palestine. Both of these still impact us today.”
The company’s latest offering, Watching Glory Die by Judith Thompson, was inspired by the true story of 19-year-old Canadian inmate Ashley Smith, who choked herself to death while her prison guards, on suicide watch, stood by and did nothing. Opening at Cockpit Theatre on 19th July, the play sees three women – prison inmate Glory, her mother and her guard – portrayed by a single performer, Victoria Fox.
Both Lesley and dramaturg Penny Farfan – Professor of Drama at the University of Calgary and past editor of Theatre Journal – have long admired the work of Judith Thompson, a leading Canadian playwright, and seized the opportunity to work together on Watching Glory Die. “Thompson is a unique voice in Canadian theatre, renowned for her distinctive combination of poetic power and shocking brutality, as exemplified in Watching Glory Die,” says Penny. “She’s helped to shape modern Canadian theatre by staging aspects of society not typically seen on stage. In doing so, her work has found an international, as well as national, audience.
“Palindrome has a commitment to women playwrights, marginalized voices, and social justice. With its three female characters and its exploration of the tragic failure of the correctional system to serve the needs of one of its most vulnerable inmates, Thompson’s play is a perfect match for Palindrome. And the production offers a wonderful opportunity for London audiences to see a recent play by an important contemporary playwright.”
Palindrome’s co-founder Lesley Ferris has a long-standing passion for women’s writing: “Women have historically been marginalized and in some cases removed from history. When I first began to study women playwrights, after I finished my degrees, I was horrified that no teacher or professor ever talked about or rarely included women’s work in their courses. Aphra Behn was a 17th century British playwright and the second most produced following the Restoration. She wrote amazing comedies that had feminist themes, and she was the first woman in Britain to write roles that women would actually perform. After her death her plays were still produced but by the time of the Victorian era she was quietly removed from sight – a woman who wrote comedies! Strong vibrant roles for women! Get rid of her!!
“History informs the present, so discovering Aphra made me think abut the present – and theatre is the art form of the present tense, so I’m committed to producing women writers and encouraging others to do so. In the USA a campaign for more women playwrights began a few years back: 50/50 in 2020 – 50% of plays produced by women by 2020, which is the centenary of the vote for women in the USA. Scholars and theatre artists are tracking this, and there may be recently a bit of improvement but there’s still a long way to go.”
Why should audiences come and see Watching Glory Die? “Multiple reasons!” says Lesley. “The play addresses an aspect of our culture – incarceration of women – that has become more extreme and problematic in the 21st century. But it’s also an opportunity to see Judith Thompson’s work, and how she imagines a solo work that takes in three distinct roles. By making this a solo work instead of a three-hander, Thompson points out the links to be made between women.”
Penny adds one more reason: “Ashley Smith was Canadian, but the issues that Thompson’s play raises transcend national borders. As Thompson has said, ‘There are Ashleys all over the world.’”
Catch the UK premiere of Watching Glory Die from 19th-23rd July at Cockpit Theatre.