The drama studio’s most recent production, The Laramie Project, is the gritty dramatisation of real events that happened in Laramie, Wyoming, in October 1998. The play follows the aftermath of a homophobic hate crime; the beating of Matthew Shepard, resulting in his death. The Laramie Project is a play drawn from the interviews and experiences of all those involved in Shepard’s life; from close friends and family, to the barman who saw Shepard leave with his attackers, to the man who found him struggling for his life after the attack.
The actors of the UEA drama society played the roles of over 60 characters, with flawless characterisation. Despite there being so many characters, arguably making the play a confusing one, the actors were all able to switch between characters so effortlessly that the play ran seamlessly. While there were some technical problems with the lighting, at times, being aimed in the wrong place so that the actors seemed to be acting in the near dark, their performance was unmistakably engaging. Not only did they recreate the essence of Wyoming with their thick, western American accents, but they did it with minimum props. The only thing distinguishing the different characters was the odd jacket, or hat, or bag here and there, and yet still the audience was never confused as to which character was being portrayed. It was a showcase of talent that was a credit to UEA’s prestigious drama history.
The excellent production can also be credited to director Linus Wyeth and Siobhan James-Elliott. In the second act of the play (consisting of three acts overall), The Laramie Project showed the media sensation caused by the murder of Matthew Shepard and the associated hate crime. Wyeth and James-Elliott had the actors tightly pulled together to the centre of the stage, shouting over each other and jostling one another to realistically portray the encroachment of the media. The lighting was also important here; the bright flashing lights of the cameras was authentically intrusive, and when added to the shouting journalists, made the drama all the more immediate. This is, of course, the aim of the performance: to emphasise that the problems of homophobia explored in The Laramie Project are still palpable today.
Since the play intends to educate the audience on the events in Wyoming and the resulting re-evaluation of the laws against hate crimes, the cast successfully deliver realism by including some vital points of view: we see the police officer and the doctor describe to the audience the severity of the attack, and the convincing mental strain it placed upon the emergency services. At a prominent point in the play, Laramie’s head doctor is charged with looking after both Matthew Shepard and his attacker. The doctor says, ‘I felt like God,’ wanting to save both patients equally, while knowing that one of them had committed a terrible crime.
The Laramie Project focuses on a highly topical, and extremely important issue: that of homophobia. Of course, we would like to think that homosexuals are increasingly becoming safe from prejudice or at least from hate crimes. But this is not always the case, and this extraordinary production shows. UEA’s drama performance does a wonderful job of educating its audience on homophobia, the thinking behind it, and the negative effects of it, in the hope that we could rid ourselves of those prejudices altogether.