The Laramie Project
Great theatre is rarely about expensive sets, or state theatres, or marquee names in lead roles. Great Theatre is about truth, and emotional connection, passion and spiritual elevation and it can (and should) be a life changing event. Last night Great Theatre was about a sky backcloth, eight wooden chairs, some creative lighting (Douglas Montgomery) and an ensemble cast of eight superlative actors sharing the vision of a gifted director to honour the text of a truly important and relevant play.
Playwright Moises Kaufman and the fellow members of his Tectonic Theatre project went to Laramie, Wyoming, where a young gay man, Matthew Shepard had been brutally beaten and left strung on a wire fence to die. It was the worst kind of homophobic brutality and an entire community was left to question what its real values were, what they stood for, and who they wanted to be. The “gay panic” defence was used in court to no avail. But it’s horrific to realise that this is still a legitimate defence in Queensland for the worst kind of violence.
In the aftermath, the community was left a better, more caring place, and Matt’s martyrdom led to all Americans examining their beliefs and prejudices. Kaufman and his group meant to only stay in Laramie for a few days, collecting material. Instead, they gave two years of their lives to more than two hundred interviews and from that Kaufman created an exquisitely constructed narrative – but every word of dialogue (most of it spoken to the audience), every thought, every emotion, comes from the transcripts of those interviews. There is no other play I know of where “actual” truth (with all its various perceptions) is the core of every line spoken. This isn’t Director Chris Baldock’s first outing with the play. Two productions, in 2004 and again the following year, became his quest to take the tragic story of Matt Shephard to an audience that might otherwise have connected only through a few column inches in a newspaper. In 2005 he won the Green Room award and great critical acclaim for his production; but Mockingbird Theatre is his new baby, and the time was right for a revival, and what a revival.
When an ensemble cast, devoid of costumes, make-up, and props, takes your breath away with their sheer conviction and respect for the text, it would be wrong not to name them all. They are Maggie Chretien, Tamara Donnellan, Debra Low and Sarah Reuben - and Christian Heath, Luke McKenzie, Scott Middleton and Adam Ward. Between them they play more than fifty characters and each character has its own body language, its own nuances, inflections, thought process and agenda. This brilliant cast allows each character to just be, without imposing an actor’s ego or even visible technique. The audience simply drowns emotionally in the simplicity and staggering honesty of the work.
Christian Heath continues to amaze me. “Natural talents”, devoid of training are few and far between, for Art always works best with Craft as a fellow traveller. Yet Christian, without any training whatsoever and never having stepped on a stage until six months ago, continues to grow at a rate that suggests he is carrying a pocketful of magic talent beans, given to him when he swapped his “cow” of a marketing career for a trip to Melbourne. Both he and the exhilarating and mercurial Adam Ward show why we should not be afraid to let overseas actors enter our talent pool. At this standard they can only enhance it. Ward’s speech to his son’s killer upon sentencing is so moving that many of the audience, me included, were visibly moved to tears. The delightfully honest acting of Scott Middleton and Maggie Chretien shows that even our regional training academies (in this case Ballarat Arts Academy) can recognise true talent and nurture it. Both Tamara Donellan and Luke McKenzie show that truly committed young actors excel whether on stage or screen. Both have visible profiles on television, with Luke having earned a Logie nomination for his work on Rescue – Special Ops. Debra Low brings a presence and experience to every character and Sarah Reuben adds her knowledge of the USA (and training in Cincinnati) to some stunning vignettes. But it is the overall ensemble work which allows us to see not eight individual actors, but an entire community struggling to define itself which makes this an extraordinary production of Baldock’s striking vision.
Do not be misled into thinking this is a “gay play”. It is a play about the human condition, prejudice and a tragedy which “happens” to be centred around the senseless slaying of a gay youth. It doesn’t preach homosexuality, it simply holds up a mirror to all of us. Among the opening night audience last night was TV’s “Harold Bishop”, Ian Smith and his stunning wife. He was one of the first to give a well deserved standing ovation at the curtain call. An old friend, he told me afterwards that he was glad he was no longer an actor competing for work as the competition, as demonstrated by this cast, was “terrifyingly excellent”.
If you care about the world we live in, and if you believe in the quest to pursue excellence and you can only see one play in the next twelve months…..Make it this one.
Photographer: Sarah Walker