It's always rather frustrating when a director doesn't trust the text of a play to achieve its desired effects, but insists on "helping out" with blatantly manipulative sound and lighting cues, over-literal bits of stage business etc. This is especially true when the text is an example of the growing genre of verbatim drama, describing real events and transcribed from the utterances of real people.
In October 1998, 21-year-old Matthew Shepard was abducted by two young men from a bar in Laramie, Wyoming, savagely beaten, tied to a fence post on a deserted country road and left to his fate. He died in hospital several days later. He had apparently offended his killers by being gay. This play follows the case and the townspeople's response to it. Or rather, it follows Moisés Kaufman and the Tectonic Theater Project of New York as they set about making a play out of the case and responses. On one level, it's no more than honest for the interviewer's presence to be included in a verbatim play; here, though, company members' journals provide a narration and at times seem to be too blatantly shaping the material. There's the added complication that, on its UK professional première, actors are playing other actors who in turn are playing the people of Laramie.
Despite this, the play is an important and powerful work, showing both the fervour with which this Rocky Mountain town repudiated such a hate crime and the deeper ambivalence of many in the community. It's annoying, then, to see director Ruth Carney go over the top with such ploys as "evocative" incidental music, umbrellas in a funeral scene, orange jump suits for the accused and even a scarf used as manacles. It's not just unnecessary, it's downright distracting, especially with actors like Margot Leicester and John Lloyd Fillingham in the cast (although other performances are more uneven).
This is the inaugural production at a new venue just off Leicester Square: a section has been carved out of a bar/club complex and turned into a black-box theatrical space. Kit Productions have assembled an astute, intriguing opening season, but it must be said that this first show is one where the play works in spite of the production, not with its help.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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