Every so often, society makes a hero or heroine of a victim of particularly heinous crimes – Stephen Lawrence, Damilola Taylor… Matthew Shepard. The gay Wyoming 21-year-old college student who was brutally assaulted, then left tied to a fence until he was found eighteen hours later, became known around the world even as he lay in hospital in a coma, awaiting certain death.
Moisés Kaufman and the Tectonic Theater Project visited Shepard’s hometown of Laramie and interviewed many of its residents – be they people who knew either Matthew or his murderers, or other townsfolk who got caught up in the events that followed his death. Those interviews form the basis of his play, The Laramie Project, which has started its first London run.
And it’s the play’s commitment to preserving the nature of the source material that marks one of the major faults with the piece. Instead of an unfolding drama, the story is presented in the main as a series of monologues, as the small troupe of student actors imitate Laramie residents with variable degrees of success. Some scenes become incredibly engaging, drawing the audience in to the story with eloquence and grace – only for the next character in the line to break the spell. There are some scenes of real power: when the ER doctor who treated both Matthew and one of his attackers on the same night muses on the painful irony of that situation, one felt the seed of a truly brilliant dramatic work just waiting to take root. Sadly there are far too many other scenes that fall short.
This is not, for the main part, the fault of the actors. As a group of American college students, even the worst actor is of a high standard. Indeed, one performance, that of Fred Sykes, is mesmerising in its intensity throughout. For all the Hollywood stars visiting the West End stage, you would be hard pressed to see a finer display of American acting ability.
It is the content of the play that ultimately lets it down. One cannot help but feel there is an element of unintentional hypocrisy on display. At one point, a student recalls how at a candlelit vigil for Matthew, someone stood up and exhorted the crowd to show the world that Laramie’s “not that kind of town” – but it is, she notes. It’s a moving speech, one that makes us start to think about the nature of public mourning, and the seeming need to be seen to grieve (as evinced in this country with Soham, or Princess Diana). And yet, when later we hear how a small candlelit procession at the end of a homecoming parade grew to 500 people and eventually outnumbered the parade proper, we are asked to accept that at face value without asking, “why?”
The lack of focus that runs through the play means that we get portrayals of the actors who took the initial interviews that at times actually detract from the power of the scenes they’re supposed to be witnessing. At one point, as the local pastor recounts how he wishes that Shepard was able to reflect on the deviant nature of his lifestyle while he was tied, bleeding, to the fence, the power and horror we should rightly feel is completely undermined by the two interviewers’ need to hug each other afterwards. It’s an unnecessary counterpoint of the sort that dogs the whole production.
That said, occasional flashes of brilliance show just how strong this cast, and this production, has the potential to be. The image of Shepard, with the only part of his body not covered in blood the tracks on his cheeks where his tears had washed him clean, is one that will remain with you far after you’ve forgotten the rest of the play – as will Dennis Shepard’s statement to the court; again, Fred Sykes owns the auditorium as he asks the judge not to pass a death sentence, not out of mercy, but because a life sentence in full knowledge of what the killer has done will wreak far more vengeance.
If the rest of the play were of the calibre of those moments, this would be a classic. As it is, this is a piece that causes us to think more than the playwright probably intended, and in different ways. While good drama should always let us find our answers, this is one drama that requires we start asking our own questions, because those on stage don’t let us off from that task.