The Glow begins in an asylum. An unnamed woman who does not eat or sleep or speak is forgotten by her peers and captors. She is discovered by a spiritualist medium, ‘a prominent woman’ and social climber who seeks ‘a young passive woman’ to exploit in her spiritualist performances. As the unnamed woman begins to work (unpaid) for the spiritualist, it becomes increasingly apparent that things are not what they seem. She might be mad, but she might also be the real thing – actually experiencing the connection with the dead that her boss and captor Mrs Lyell only pretends to contact.
This much of The Glow is implied by the promotional material provided by the Royal Court. What one comes to expect as the first half evolves is a power struggle, some commentary on the exploitation of people who are different, and a resolution of the mysterious woman’s character either via diagnosis or confirmation that she is indeed magical.
What we get for the rest of the play is something completely different (spoiler alert). The woman is neither mad nor is she in contact with the dead. She is an immortal time-traveller.
Leaving behind late Victorian England, The Glow takes us on an uneven journey across different incarnations of The Woman’s eternal life, including skirmishes in Roman and Arthurian England, a brief stint in the second world war, and more sustained periods in the 1970s and 1990s. She outlives martyrdoms, witch burnings and drownings until finally reaching the end of the world and becoming assimilated into space itself.
The Glow is inspired by a study in comparative mythology, Dorothy Waite’s 1928 book The Woman in Time. Waite’s book was a Casaubon-esque study which argued that a single persona ‘the woman’ can be traced throughout history and culture to ‘pass comment on the age’. She pops up in paintings, poems, myths and descriptions of real-life events across history. She is often depicted or described as surrounded by a glowing light. Alistair McDowall’s new fantasy play literalises this widely de-bunked account, wondering what it would be like to actually be this recurring symbol. In his version of the myth, The Woman actively resists being made to symbolise anything, preferring silence and seclusion.
There is a lot that is compelling in The Glow. The use of projection on the deceptively simple set is enchanting, and takes us into varied emotional spaces. The focus of this column is typically on medicine, illness and theatre. In relation to these themes McDowall’s play offers an interesting and sometimes touching consideration of what it might mean to be an outsider in different times and places. The woman, eventually named Brook, forms two important friendships during the play, in the years 1348 and 1993. She is taken in by an aging knight in medieval England and a middle-aged woman in 1990s Wales. The knight and the woman care for Brook without imposing on her, giving her refuge and not forcing her to fit into a mould. They do not mind so much that she doesn’t eat or sleep, that she sometimes screams and sees things, that she makes strange requests. She is given a non-judgemental space in which live outside of the norm – something which we rarely see represented in theatre or literature.
These friendships take place in front of a backdrop of historically varied abuses. McDowall makes clear that whilst different times might treat outsiders differently, these are simply variations on the same exclusive cruelty – whether this is making vulnerable people destitute in the 1990s, incarcerating them in inhumane asylums in the 1800s, burning them as witches or cutting them up as martyrs. Sometimes, both the time-travel and the historically located threats to Brook felt heavy-handed in this play and the figure of the immortal, ever-persecuted woman is does not develop very far. There are clumsy moments in the friendships too. Brook receives her name as a gift from the knight – a nice moment, but one which would have been much more compelling if she had named herself. Despite these reservations, The Glow used a seemingly immortal theme to gently raise questions about the nature of companionship. At a moment in which we are renegotiating what community means following almost two years of isolation, I welcomed this provocation.
 Helen Cullwick, ‘Woman in Time: History, Fantasy, Theatre’