Last Thursday, Friday and Saturday, the Bath University Student Theatre society (BUST) performed The Laramie Project at the Weston Studio in the Edge. For those of you who could not see it, I have to say I am sorry, because it was not a performance to miss.
The play revolves around the events that unfolded in October 1998, when Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old gay man, was beaten to death in the little town of Laramie, Wyoming. Matthew was picked up at a bar, savagely beaten up, and left tied to a fence for eighteen hours until he was found. He died six days later, propelling international outcry that brought Laramie in to the limelight. Two men around the same age as Matthew were arrested, tried and found guilty for his murder. The events threw Laramie under international scrutiny amongst widespread outcry, raising the voices of those who had long been claiming that laws addressing hate crimes were overdue. Effectively, hate crime laws were only passed in 2009, under the “Matthew Shepard Act”.
The play, directed by Chiara Fehr and Juliette Duffey, was crafted and executed masterfully. With huge budgets and high tech effects, acting can get a whole lot easier: but when the set is static and minimalist, as was that of The Laramie Project, that’s when the actors become one whole with their surroundings, truly carrying the play. It’s when real, raw acting drastically comes to the fore. This cast delivered and did so incredibly well.
The Laramie Project is also a totally different type of play altogether: it is based, word by word, on interviews held with witnesses, citizens of Laramie, people who were influenced by Matthew’s death in some way. This is a type of production called ‘verbatim theatre’. Given the sheer amount of interviews that were originally gathered for the screenplay, each of the BUST cast members had to perform multiple characters. Despite the high risk of confusion, particularly for quick character changes, I cannot overstate how I didn’t once lose track of the story.
It was interesting to see people’s reactions to the show and the ways in which the issues raised touched them. The play carries on after Matthew’s death, accurately describing the wave of anti-gay protesters who, led by Baptist preacher Fred Phelps, descended into Laramie like a plague to preach about God’s hate for homosexuals at Matthew’s funeral. Laramie, through a peaceful counter-protest, blocked them.
For many of us, this play might have struck a chord a little too close to home, and perhaps that’s exactly what we needed. Matthew’s murder only happened twenty years ago: a lot of us are the age he was when this happened, and it appears that the rhetoric against LGBT+ people still holds strong. The US has a Vice President who has actively allowed companies to discriminate against workers on the basis of their sexual orientation; Brazil has elected a President who said he would not forgive his son if he was gay; and, just over the weekend, the Italian city of Verona held a world traditional family congress, which, of course, was overflowing with average Joes and Janes shouting out pretty much every homophobic argument in the book. If anything, this play reminds us how the issues Laramie faced twenty years ago are still issues LGBT+ youths face today.
I left the Weston crying a little, comforted by the fact I was not the only one. The execution of the play hit the perfect note while narrating a difficult story. The cast was outstanding, generally did an amazing job and kept the tension up from start to finish. More people definitely need to see The Laramie Project.