James Ryan Gobuty
After much anticipation theatre readers, I finally had the opportunity to see the legendary Judith Thompson’s return to the stage in her new production: Watching Glory Die, directed by Ken Gass. The show, presented by Canadian Rep Theatre at Canadian Stage’s Berkeley Street Theatre, is Thompson’s attempt at bringing to light the bureaucratic nightmare that Canadian correctional facilities have become, as evidenced by the now infamous Ashley Smith case. Thompson, no stranger to exploring difficult subject matter in her plays, has her work cut out for her in performing every role in this difficult and heart-wrenching piece, and she certainly doesn’t disappoint.
Watching Glory Die follows three characters: the incarcerated Glory, her adoptive Mother, and Glory’s prison guard Gail, all played by Thompson. Inspired by the Ashley Smith case, Watching Glory Die explores the helplessness of all three characters, with Glory incarcerated as a young teen for throwing a crab apple, her mother incapable of helping her, and Gail unable to reconcile her own morals with the orders she must enforce to keep her job. The three characters create a cycle of helplessness on stage that makes this play difficult to watch, but nevertheless incredibly important.
Upon entering the upstairs space of the Berkeley Street Theatre, I was immediately struck by the set by Astrid Janson, which was on full display. The main set piece was a small room with two walls removed (to expose it to the audience) that establishes the claustrophobia of Glory’s prison cell for the audience, before the show even begins. Throughout the play, Glory is trapped in her cell — often bound in a head to toe wrap so that she can’t move an inch — ruminating on the creation story she has created about her “crocodile mother” trying to consume her. Glory’s mental state is put on full display by the bombardment of projections (created by Cameron Davis) on her cell walls, displaying surrealistic depictions of smoke and shattering glass, as well as projections of Thompson herself in character — a truly disturbing, yet beautiful effect for the stage. Kudos also go to lighting designer Andre du Toit (whose work I cannot seem to praise enough), whose masterful design helped to facilitate Thompson’s transitions between characters, with the lighting perfectly delimiting the performing space for each character: Glory in the cell, Gail perfectly lit around the perimeter of the cell, and the Mother with a spotlight far stage left, expressing her distance and helplessness. Surely the excellent design team made a huge contribution to the success of this show.
Of course, the main draw of this show is the return of Judith Thompson in the role of performer for the first time in many years, a task she did not make easy for herself. Thompson moves seamlessly from the sweet, yet disturbed Glory to the stern but sympathetic Gail, and the warm yet meek Mother and back, in what must have been an exhausting performance. Though the entire play is well written and well performed, the characters Glory and Gail draw in the most attention because of the intense contrast between Glory drawing closer and closer to complete breakdown, and Gail having to maintain her tough, loyal demeanor against her better judgements. Thompson’s careful and nuanced performance just goes to show that no amount of time off can take away the skill of a true master of her craft.
Some reviewers have said that though excellent, Watching Glory Die doesn’t add anything new to the discussion of the Ashley Smith case, but I must beg to differ. Though the play might not expose any new details about the situation, it does in fact bring people palpably close to the situation, disintegrating the distance that television documentaries and exposés necessarily create. Thompson’s work seeks to “implicate” the audience in a way that the news media cannot and in my opinion, she succeeded with flying colours.
To read the interview with playwright and performer Judith Thompson regarding the play head to: http://thetheatrereader.tumblr.com/post/85666371939/judith-thompson-discusses-watching-glory-die-and
Watching Glory Die is presented by Canadian Rep Theatre and is playing at the Berkeley Street Theatre Upstairs, 26 Berkeley Street, Toronto, until June 1. Tickets can be purchased by telephone at 416-368-3110 or online at canadianrep.ca.
photo credit: Wendy D