This April, the Stirling University Drama Society (SUDS) put on a stunning performance of the internationally critically acclaimed production, The Laramie Project at the Macrobert Arts Centre.
The play is based on the true story of 21 year old Matthew Shepard, who was found tied to a fence post outside Laramie, Wyoming in 1998. Matthew had been the victim of a vicious assault and died in hospital 5 days later.
What made the event even more tragic and controversial was that it was the result of a homosexual hate crime.
Following Matthew’s death, the Tectonic Theatre group from New York City went to Laramie 6 times and conducted over 200 interviews with residents of the town, all of whom had either known Matthew or had had some personal or professional involvement in the aftermath of his death.
Their findings showed the diversity that lives within society, and how people understand and experience the world in different ways, and how this in turn shapes their attitudes and actions.
In light of their research, they decided to create a play which would witness and explore the testimonies of several real residents of Laramie after Matthew’s murder, and through a marked undercurrent, promote equality.
The play does not focus on narrative but simply journeys through the events following Matthew’s death, and employs interviews or monologues to study the various outlooks of the characters and contrast their natures.
The dialogue shows that cruelty and discrimination can be devastating when unchecked, but that inspiring change and benevolence can take place in a community following such tragic events.
SUDS’ performance of this powerful play was well presented given that The Laramie Project is a very challenging live performance, as it involves little action and uses only nine actors to portray and swap between the many people interviewed.
As usual there were a couple of actors who stood out and stole the stage with their powerful performances. In a play that lacks sensory distractions and is based on static movement, the attention to detail is essential, and some lacked the concentration to make their performances defined or purposeful, whereas as others were utterly exquisite.
Two such actors were was James Craig and Elizabeth Clutterbuck. Their skilful versatility rendered them magnetic; their slick changes between the various characters played allowed them to gain complete control and attention within their scenes.
Their performances never faltered, giving vitality and meaning to their presence.
However, as in any play some of the cast lacked true flexibility on stage and failed to move between characters convincingly, and this led to confusion within the audience as the progression from one interview to another was not always solidly defined.
Also, the use of American accents was a tricky aspect to handle, as accents either work like a dream or cause a nightmare. In this case, some of the accents given by those such as Callum Downs and Rowan MacAskill were faultless, whereas others lacked control of their accents and this affected the sharpness of their scenes.
However, their performance was commendable. They successfully filled the stage with energy and emotive credibility as a group of actors who were engaging with a piece which lacked mise-en to enhance the art of theatre.
The use of the third wall was employed boldly and passionately, thus awakening the audience’s relationship to the play and its living space.
The use of simple clothing and props brought humility to the scenes and allowed the dialogues to gain prominence.
The simple use of 400 white and blue tags which covered the stage’s walls sent a clear message. The white tags showed the names of people in the world who have been killed due to homophobic hate crimes, and the blue tags reveal individuals or organisations who are currently fighting to achieve equality.
These tags were a simple act that reinforces that Matthew’s story does not stand alone, and plays such as The Laramie Project reveal the human nature which lies behind hate crimes, and encourages the world to change its attitudes.
Overall, SUDS performance was touching and fulfilled the play’s subtle purpose and style despite its complexities as a piece of art.
One student in the audience said: “It was my most favourite SUDS performance yet. I couldn’t believe how much emotion and feeling they managed to produce through simple dialogue. I cried. Several times.”
Their performance was beautifully moving and gripping in exploring a difficult story and truth. They handled the sensitive nature of the piece with care, and carried the weight of responsibility to both theatre and reality with truly professional skill and quality.