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In 1998 two local men met Matthew Shepard, a 21-year old, five foot two inches tall, gay student in a bar in Laramie, Wyoming. They took him in their wagon out onto the prairie and there they tied him to a fence and beat and tortured him senseless. It was 18 hours before his unconscious, barely breathing body was discovered, his wrists still tightly lashed to the fence. Though medics fought to save him, he died five days later. The media descended upon the town where if you did not know everyone, you at least knew someone else who knew them. This murder, in a place that had been called ‘the gentle city of the Plains’, was reported around the world.
Four weeks after the murder, ten members of the Tectonic Theater Project in New York travelled to Laramie to begin interviewing its citizens with the idea of making a play about it. Rebecca Hilliker, Head of the Theatre Department at the University of Wyoming, welcomed them. She told them that at first her shocked students talked freely about the murder but when the media descended, intrusive and insensitive — they even tried to interview someone while they were peeing — everyone clammed up. The students needed to talk. The members of Tectonic would find some with very redneck attitudes, she said, but she’d rather hear things said that she did not like than for them be all cooped up inside.
This play is not a detective story. The perpetrators were quickly identified and arrested. It is a play that looks at the background to the murder and at its effect on the citizens and students of Laramie. Tectonic Theatre Project, headed by Moisés Kaufman, made six visits to Laramie over a period of 18 months, conducting over 200 interviews. From these, statements in court, public announcements by hospital staff and the victim’s family, police interviews with the murderers, and even a church sermon, the play is created. The members of Tectonic and their reactions are also an integral part of the piece and in this first British professional production the actors play not only the ranchers, university students and professors, bar staff, police officers, doctors, religious leaders, reporters, friends of both victim and murderers and the murderers themselves but also the original American actors.
The script is carefully constructed so that each voice is clearly identified and this cast of eight do a terrific job under the direction of Ruth Carney. They are Geoff Francis, Andrew Garfield, Penny Layden, Margot Leicester, John Lloyd Fillingham, Samantha Robinson, Stephanie Street and Russell Tovey. Layden is the policewoman first called to the scene, Robinson the biker who discovered Shepard and the actress who could not deal with even seeing the place it happened. Street plays a Moslem student, Fillingham a policeman and a firebrand minister, while Francis is the victim’s father, Garfield a drama student whose parents refuse to see him in Angels in America and one of the murderers. Leicester is the policewoman’s mother and a university lesbian, Tovey the other murderer and a Hispanic convict. All of them provide moments which stay with you but this is very much an ensemble show to which everyone of these versatile actors makes their contribution. The first half is long — you need the interval — though I would not wish to see a moment cut.
Carney and the designer David Farley have staged it very simply with a few wooden crates and a metal chair on a sloping hillside in front of a blank wall on which a faint skyline is occasionally picked out. Julian McCready’s lighting carefully picks out performers as needed and Neil Alexander provides some discreet musical and other aural colour. Even if their contribution is only a sentence or two, each person is fully characterised and it is a production full of movement with two stylized occasions when actors become the guilty murderers.
This production constantly holds the attention and at several moments I found tears welling. But there is nothing sentimental about it: even a candlelight vigil is pure reportage. Of course, its evidence is selective and it is a plea for tolerance but it is also a picture of a community, a picture that tries to reflect that community accurately and show it changing. “I don’t think I understood the magnitude with which people hate,” says one character, and the support for the death penalty may seem as shocking to a British audience as the hellfire sermon of a Baptist minister.
This production is only partly about homophobia and though its timing happens to coincide with the build-up to Gay Pride, it covers issues of importance to us all and deserves to have a longer life than is currently scheduled. Meanwhile, do go and see it.
Howard Loxton © 2005
Originally published on R&V 29-06-05
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