THE LARAMIE PROJECT
The Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 7th May, 2017
The horrific murder of Matthew Shepard in 1998 sent shockwaves across the USA and around the world. A tipping point had been reached, it seemed and, although it took a while, law was passed to protect minorities from hate crime.
At the time, the Tectonic Theatre Project visited the town of Laramie, Wyoming several times, interviewing local people of a variety of walks of life and with a range of views on the murder. Those interviews form the basis for this play, using verbatim the words of the Laramie people.
Almost twenty years later, this new production in the Crescent’s Ron Barber studio demonstrates the piece has lost none of its power and, sadly, none of its relevance. It’s a play about its own making. Actors play actors from the theatre company along with the people they interview and the whole piece is structured around the murder – before, during and its aftermath, covering a year in the life of Laramie. It’s a compelling piece of work and this production certainly does it great service.
The cast of ten populates the space with police, neighbours, family members, the clergy – over 60 roles, all aided by the costume designs of Pat Brown and Vera Dean: we see who these people are in an instant, before they speak for themselves. I cannot assign roles to particular actors (I’m sure to get it wrong) so, as the programme does, I shall just list them: Kassie Duke, Juliet Ibberson, Simon King, Sean McCarthy, Judy O’Dowd, Liz Plumpton, Ben Pountney, Phil Rea, John Whittell, and Sam Wilson. They all rise to the challenges of the piece, delivering varied and rounded characterisations as well as the emotional punch of key scenes.
There is an especially chilling and repulsive portrayal of hate-mongering, Bible-brandisher Fred Phelps – all the more sickening because you realise bastards like him are still around, spouting their bilious nonsense and disrupting funerals of gay people.
Rod Natkiel does a remarkable job of directing the action on his minimalist stage – each monologue and exchange is delivered differently. There is nothing samey or static in the presentation; we have a lot to listen to but he keeps us engaged and, even though we know the outcome, gripped as the story is pieced together. Natkiel also uses specially shot video clips – news bulletins, mainly – which add to the verity of this docudrama, as well as upping the Americana factor. I have to say the accents are uniformly strong.
A play about hatred but there are also the more positive aspects of humanity in evidence: humour, warmth and compassion, to name but three.
As societies across the world, from the USA to Chechnya take backwards strides in their treatment of gay people, the grisly death of Matthew Shepard is back to haunt us and ask us what kind of society do we want to be.
Compelling and a shining example of the high quality of work produced at the Crescent.