Elizabeth Fry: The Angel of Prisons, the latest in a series of site-specific plays inspired by the history of Newham in east London, is running this week in the Elizabeth Fry Room at Canning Town Library. It has a press night tonight (Wednesday 24 August) and continues until 27 August 2022. We spoke to playwright James Kenworth about the Victorian reformer who inspired the play. Book now before it’s too late!
Elizabeth Fry: The Angel of Prisons is the latest instalment in The Newham Plays, a series of plays rooted in Newham’s history, culture and people, created and written by James Kenworth.
The plays, directed by James Martin Charlton, are a unique collaboration between a writer, director, designer and professional actors working alongside students from Newham schools and young actors from local youth groups/theatres. Following the production, an Elizabeth Fry Education Resource Pack will be produced and free drama workshops run in partner schools.
How much did you know about Elizabeth Fry before this project? What inspired you to write about her?
I knew very little, in truth. A few years ago, a Newham Councillor who is very supportive of my work on the Newham Plays, teased me that I had chiefly written plays about historical figures that were men (Charlie Chaplin, Gandhi, Keir Hardie), or adaptations of novels written by male authors (George Orwell, Lewis Carroll), and wasn’t it about time perhaps that I wrote about a famous female historical figure with connections to Newham?
I said, I couldn’t agree more, but who could I write about? (Which blatantly and immediately exposed my male-centric view of local history!). The Councillor suggested Elizabeth Fry, the iconic Victorian prison reformer and philanthropist, and resident of Newham for a period in her life. I went away and did my research, and was just astounded at how much difference Fry made to the female prisoners in Newgate Prison.
Shouldn’t we be doing more to break this vicious cycle?
And essentially it all began from the same premise/ideology, inspired by her unquenchable Quaker faith: treating prisoners not like animals, but like human beings. With dignity. Respect. Compassion. None of these things were granted to prisoners in her day. In fact, they were actively denied and withheld, and the central emphasis of prisons was merely to punish and protect.
I agree with the latter purpose – of course, the public has a right to expect protection from criminals – but when you consider the often stark correlation between mental health illness, addiction, history of abuse, and violence in the lives and backgrounds of prisoners, I started to think that they had been dealt a vicious blow, not once, but twice in their lives; a traumatic, dysfunctional upbringing, and now a prison sentence. Shouldn’t we be doing more to break this vicious cycle?
What do you think Fry would make of the state of UK prisons today?
I think she would have been heartened that current UK jails, although not perfect by a long way, don’t resemble ‘Hell above ground’ anymore, which was what Newgate Prison was known as, and that a more humane and rehabilitative way of treating prisoners is growing traction as the way to reduce crime.
However, as an ardent believer in the idea of prison being about reform, not punishment or revenge, I think she would be worried about the statistics. The Prison Reform Trust has recorded that there are still twice as many women in prison today as there were 27 years ago; that Scotland and England and Wales have the highest imprisonment rates in western Europe; rates of self-harm are alarmingly high, particularly amongst women.
On the basis of these depressing and distressing facts and statistics about prisons in the UK, Fry may well have asked: is prison working? Or is it making things worse?
“Punishment’s not for revenge, but to lessen crime and reform the criminal…” – Elizabeth Fry. What’s your opinion on punishment within the prison system? Let us know below and attend our play to explore more! Link in bio #ElizabethFry #AngelPrisons pic.twitter.com/ZD46iezdzi
— angelprisons (@angelprisons) August 18, 2022
What do you want audiences to take away from the play?
Firstly, to discover and find out more about the extraordinary work of Elizabeth Fry and her liberating and inspiring effect on prisons and prisoners. Secondly, to start a debate/discussion.
I’m of an age when I can recall the Conservative Home Secretary Michael Howard saying emphatically in 1993 that ‘prison works’. All governments are nervous about crime. There are no votes in being experimental with crime and punishment.
But I think there’s a wider, fuller debate to be had: what is prison for? Revenge or reform? Punishment or rehabilitation? Should we even consider abolishing prisons and replacing them? But replacing them with what? Surely we want to avoid replicating the appalling school-to-prison pipeline experience in America. But perhaps it’s too late, perhaps we’re already there?
Anything else you’d like to add?
I’ve written Elizabeth Fry: The Angel of Prisons from the point of view of three female prisoners in Newgate Prison who knew Elizabeth Fry. So Fry is not a character in her own right in the play. It’s the prisoners’ story really. Which sounds a strange thing to do in a play with Elizabeth Fry in the title.
Obviously, I’m interested in dramatising the ‘hero/heroine’ theory, ie history explained by the impact of great men or women, but I’m interested too in those who were there and whose lives were impacted and affected by significant, inspirational figures in history. The macro and the micro, if you like. I think I’m giving the best of both worlds to audiences!
What is prison for? Revenge or reform? Punishment or rehabilitation?
We have a stunning cast, and like all the Newham Plays, one combining professional actors with local acting talent from Newham. One of our younger actors, Abu, has been with us for years, and this is his fourth show with us.
It’s a great creative team, and a fantastic space to perform in: Canning Town Library, which is a state-of-the-art, cutting-edge community neighbourhood centre, a perfect environment for a play about a woman who changed lives in prisons, changed the law, and practised an ideology of inclusivity, diversity and respect.
Elizabeth Fry: The Angel of Prisons runs from 22 to 27 August 2022 at Canning Town Library (Elizabeth Fry Room), 18 Rathbone Road, Canning Town, London E16 1EH, with evening performances at 7.30pm, Thursday and Saturday matinees at 3pm. Pay what you can (suggested donation £5). CLICK HERE TO PURCHASE!