By Moises Kaufman
You get a free voucher for a drink at the bar with your ticket for this play, and by interval you need it. Or perhaps, if you’re of a very sensitive disposition, you should have the drink before you enter the theatre. For this play will tear at your guts and make you wonder whether there’s any hope for this world, and whether love, compassion and justice have any place in it.
In 1998 Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old gay university student in Laramie, Wyoming, was beaten up by two homophobic men, tied to a fence, tortured and left for dead in the freezing cold until he was found 18 hours later by a passing cyclist. He was taken to hospital and died five days later, but during that time his story attracted world-wide interest, and he became the focus of a new concern about hate-crimes that, many people still believe, changed the way America thinks.
A year after Matthew’s death, a group of theatre practitioners from New York decided that this tragedy begged to be dramatised, so they visited the town and interviewed as many people as they could about their reaction to the murder. The play, which has since been made into a film with the same title, was presented by playwright Moisés Kaufman and the Tectonic Theatre Project as a documentary and has been the cause of much discussion ever since.
It’s very much a think-piece, for the story isn’t told directly. Matthew Shepard never appears, and the murder itself is not portrayed, except by a brief description during the trial of the perpetrators (who were later given life sentences). The interviews themselves, based on actual recordings of what was said, are played low-key and without strong emotion, with the voices sometimes dropping so that they could scarcely be heard, which added to the strain of the whole production, making us focus as intensely as if we were in a real courtroom.
A whole raft of characters is here, from the members of the interviewing team to townspeople who include a homophobic preacher, the town governor, cops of various kinds, bar-tenders, doctors, university students and even a gay faculty member. They’re played by a very accomplished cast of eight (Leesa Connolly, Catarina Hebbard, Daniel Murphy, Emma Pursey, Christopher Summers, Kevin Spink, Niki-J Witt and Jeremy Wood), some better-known to Brisbane audiences than others, but working as a seamless ensemble as they morph from one character to another.
The interviews are the more shocking because of the way they are deliberately underplayed, and some of the revelations are like a kick in tha face – the fact that Matthew Shepard was HIV positive and the attending police officer had to be tested to see whether she had been infected by his blood; that the Baptist preacher at the trail insists that the God of the Bible is a God of hate rather than of love (twice as many references for hate, he tells us); that even the most sympathetic interviewees revealed underlying prejudices.
In the end, though, what does this play achieve? In the real town of Laramie, some of the citizens came to terms with the realisation that this wasn’t the happy accepting place they thought it was, and that they were somehow all responsible for this terrible hate crime. Some of them wanted to move on, while others would be racked with guilt for ever, because anti-minority prejudices still lingered, in spite of the enormous support shown to Matthew’s parents all over the world, and many people were forced to look at themselves with new eyes.
But what about the criticisms voiced by some people both in and outside the town? Was it true, for example, as one homophobe in the play spat out, that there wouldn’t have been such an outcry if Matthew had been straight rather than gay? Was it politicised by the powerful gay lobby in New York? And what does it say about the divided voices of the Christian churches and the hide-bound beliefs of the Bible Belt?
And, most of all, what right did the theatre group from New York, those sophisticated young actors, have to come to this hick little town in the mid-West and implicitly judge its citizens by making a play about them? Were they themselves playing God by treating a traumatic incident as a kind of mass-observation project? Did the process change the interviewers themselves, and did they want to help with the healing process, or were they using the experience just as a professional exercise?
For me, the very best thing about this play and production was the questions it raised, and although it was a very special theatre experience in itself, I would have loved to see discussion groups forming afterwards where some of these less obvious issues could be thrashed out.
It certainly wasn’t simple entertainment, but it is the kind of play that should be seen by school or community groups, because it raises more questions than it answers.
For if the ghastly death of Matthew Shepard is to have any redemptive qualities and the play is to be more than just another shock-horror doco, it must do more than appeal to the smug morality of the middle-class liberals who are its target audience. It must force everyone to re-examine their values and reach into their own souls – but of course, those are the people who would never be bothered seeing a play like this in the first place.
There are many dangers in this kind of theatrical exercise, especially when it’s confined to one small theatre. But The Laramie Project is a play that school groups should see, and with its simple set and low-budget trappings it would be an ideal play to tour – much more socially productive and stimulating than yet another production of Romeo and Juliet, for example.
Director: Lucas Stibbard
Designer: Kieran Swann
Lighting: Keith Clark
Playing 24 October – 3 November 2007
Duration: 2 hours 30 minutes with one interval