Being a student at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama is a very prestigious thing indeed. The seemingly endless roll-call of talent that has graduated from Silk Street and gone on to make their mark on theatre, film or television is testament enough for this. After witnessing the Guildhall’s latest batch perform The Laramie Project, it is clear that they are still churning out talent.
The Laramie Project is the harrowing true story of Matthew Shepard, a 21 year old from Laramie, whose brutal and savage kidnap, torture and murder was a homophobic hate crime which shocked his small-town community and the US at large. In the aftermath, members of the Tectonic Theater Project travelled to Laramie to interview a town in crisis and contemplation. These interviews were then edited together to become The Laramie Project, an ethnographic and monologue-driven piece that highlights the many fault lines and contradictions within society.
The Laramie Project is also that age-old thing; a play within a play, as the audience meets members of the theatre project, including Jedadiah Schultz, whose portrayal of Matthew is frowned upon by his parents for supposedly giving credence to the sin of homosexuality. (Jedadiah’s point that his parents came to see his performance as Macbeth, a man guilty of murder, just proves further the prevalence of homophobic sentiment in many parts of America.)
Moises Kaufman’s play is an exceptionally strong piece of work, and the power and poignancy of the writing comes from the fact that the words spoken are true. Thus, the American ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ policy, which until very recently was the only way gay Americans were “allowed” the join the military, is completely dismantled by the harsh truth that it means nothing more than “if I don’t tell you I’m a fag, you won’t beat the crap out of me”, whilst America’s deep-rooted but unspoken class and unjust school systems are revealed by the term ‘SOL’, i.e., those who receive poor education due to their economic background are simply ‘Shit Outta Luck’. Most strikingly is Officer Reggie Fluty’s account that the only areas of Matthew’s face that weren’t stained red with dry blood were those areas reachable by his tears of pain.
With quotes like this in mind, The Laramie Project points a harsh spotlight at the conscious and unconscious homophobia so engrained within the media and culture at large, and is a piece of theatre that aims to evoke anger and empowerment within audiences by highlighting this injustice.
This is not a production without its faults however. Whilst the staging is visually impressive, a monolithic wooden construction that dominates the space, this results in much noisy and often distracting clambering about from the wings. Equally, at times it feels as if there is a little bit too much of characterisation-by-numbers; would the reverend necessarily be clutching a bible at all times? On occasion, the characters speak over each other, which may go to show the variety of voices and opinions within Laramie, but it does make it difficult at times to actually hear dialogue and seems a little bit unco-ordinated.
In a cast of 22 playing 69 different characters, it may seem a little mean-spirited to pick out any members of the company for specific praise, but I was particularly struck by the gutsy and emotive performances of Patrick Walshe McBride, Ryan Van Champion and Eleanor Williams, whilst Jordan Metcalfe was fascinating as killer Aaron McKinney.
In an audience packed with proud parents, Wyn Jones’s production proves that you don’t have to be a seasoned actor, indeed you don’t even have had to have graduated yet, to give life to such a distressing and raw piece of political theatre.
The Laramie Project is playing at Silk Street Theatre, Guildhall School of Music and Drama, until 27 March. For more information and tickets, see the Guildhall School of Music and Drama website.