Fourteen cast members. One stage. Almost twenty years since the brutal murder of gay teenager Matthew Shepard by his peers that shaped the Hate Crimes Prevention Act of America. Moisés Kaufman’s verbatim piece
The Laramie Project is not a play about hate – it is a play about hope, and that is what makes it such a beautiful and powerful piece to experience.
Beginning such a show with a musical number is a bold move: the strangely upbeat tone, carried by a full chorus, contrasts heavily with the sombre foundation upon which this production is built. It is through this levity, however, that the Italia Conti Ensemble can truly demonstrate their ability to pivot through a rich spectrum of dramatic tones as the show continues. Moments of humour are artfully balanced with heart-breaking memories, preserved for over two decades and delivered with compassion by each member of the ensemble in turn.
Whilst this is not a violent play, the spectre of what Matthew endured that night hangs over every person onstage and in the audience. Abstaining from ever attempting to recreate the events that catalysed these interviews, the sole reminder onstage is that of a fence post which dominates centre stage, its significance unveiled by one iconically harrowing interview with the cyclist (Jake Felts) who discovered his body.
This is a masterclass in multi-role-ing: the delivery of each interview is carefully nuanced to produce over 30 fully-fleshed characters, standouts being the straight-talking Marge Murray (Kate Donnachie) and Alexandra Bowen’s compassionate cop Reggie Fluty among many others. More than just a recital, dynamic movement and thoughtful interplay of interviews help to create a dialogue of perspectives within a scene, whether it’s the bar in which Matthew spent his last evening or the media frenzy that took Laramie by storm upon his passing.
This is ultimately a story about a community, and with the whole cast onstage at all times we are persistently reminded that every character in this town is connected. The group’s constant engagement with each other is one such detail that brings this home, with unspoken reactions out of the spotlight not going unnoticed by the audience.
The softness and kindness with which this production has taken shape belies the brutality of its subject matter. As taxi driver Doc O’Connor (played with poise by Matthew Gouldesbrough) remarks, “I didn't understand the magnitude with which some people can hate”. However, The Laramie Project is not a play about hate – it is a play about hope, and that is what makes it such a beautiful and powerful piece to experience.