The Yellow WallpaperSixteen Words for WaterThe Big ConMastheadCruel and TenderThe Laramie Project ~ theatre notes

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

The Yellow Wallpaper

The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, directed by Peter Evans, performed by Anita Hegh. Design Adam Gardnir, lighting design Luke Hails, sound design Roger Alsop. At the Store Room until April 3.

As soon as Anita Hegh props herself primly on a wooden schoolroom chair and glances neurotically at her right hand, as if it were some wild animal that might escape any moment, you realise that you're in for a special performance. Nothing that follows disabuses this expectation.

It's an enactment of a short story by the early feminist Charlotte Perkins Gilman, in which an unnamed woman who is being treated for a nervous condition is confined by her doctor husband in a room decorated with particularly ugly wallpaper. The story traces her mental breakdown through a series of snatched diary entries. The Yellow Wallpaper rivals Georg Buchner's story Lenz as a compelling depiction of the subjectivity of madness, notable for both its imaginative expressiveness and the almost clinical precision of its observations.

In a 1913 article, Gilman was very clear about why she wrote this semi-autobiographical work. "For many years," she wrote, "I suffered from a severe and continuous nervous breakdown ... During about the third year of this trouble I went ... to a noted specialist in nervous diseases, the best known in the country. This wise man put me to bed and applied the rest cure, to which a still-good physique responded so promptly that he concluded there was nothing much the matter with me, and sent me home with solemn advice to 'live as domestic a life as far as possible,' to 'have but two hours' intellectual life a day,' and 'never to touch pen, brush, or pencil again' as long as I lived. This was in 1887.

"I went home and obeyed those directions for some three months, and came so near the borderline of utter mental ruin that I could see over. Then, using the remnants of intelligence that remained, and helped by a wise friend, I cast the noted specialist's advice to the winds and went to work again - work, the normal life of every human being; work, in which is joy and growth and service, without which one is a pauper and a parasite - ultimately recovering some measure of power.

"Being naturally moved to rejoicing by this narrow escape, I wrote The Yellow Wallpaper, with its embellishments and additions, to carry out the ideal (I never had hallucinations or objections to my mural decorations) and sent a copy to the physician who so nearly drove me mad. He never acknowledged it. ...Many years later I was told that the great specialist had admitted to friends of his that he had altered his treatment of neurasthenia since reading The Yellow Wallpaper. It was not intended to drive people crazy, but to save people from being driven crazy, and it worked."

Gilman's passionate account here implies much of the history of female neurosis and its relationship to the medical profession; and more precisely, the difficulties faced by creative women in restrictive patriarchal societies that find such women to be, at best, oddities, and at worst, monstrous. In these contexts normal human desires, such as the wish for meaningful work or satisfying sex, are considered the province of men; when they appear in women, they are thought to be pathological or wicked.

The historical repression of intelligent and passionate women, from witch burnings to hysterectomies to institutionalisation, is not within my purview here; but it's a gruesome and sad and ongoing story. It is easy to say, in Melbourne in 2005, that those times are now long past; but the persistence of conditions like anorexia nervosa or the obsession with celebrity culture suggest that, even here, contemporary ideals of femininity might be little less imprisoning now than they were a century ago.

Hegh's performance is a compelling physicalisation of the fractures and deformations that the imposition of the "feminine" can do to a woman's self. In the beginning, Hegh sits or stands in poses that are exaggeratedly prim, her neck and chin extended like a mannerist painting, and the strange calmness of her voice has an anxious, nail-biting edge. But there are more violent disturbances in this ladylike facade; her body does not appear to wholly belong to her. She jumps with sudden, neurotic intakes of breath; she strikes strange poses, grotesque parodies of the feminine grace of a ballerina; her eyes flicker, as if her face were a prison through which her soul fleetingly and pleadingly emerges, only to vanish into the repetitious tics of conventional womanhood.

Her right hand, her working hand, is a focus of anguish and desire. Forbidden by her husband to write, she makes her diary entries furtively, obsessively recording her observations of the "optic horror" of the yellow wallpaper in the room where she is genteely imprisoned as a kind of sick child. In keeping with her infantalisation, this room is a former nursery, and the windows are barred. Eventually she becomes convinced that the ghastly patterns conceal a creeping woman who is attempting to get out; but that woman, of course, is herself.

The wallpaper itself becomes a potent symbol of the inscrutable and devious social codes by which the woman is disempowered. "On a pattern like this, by daylight, there is a lack of sequence, a defiance of law, that is a constant irritant to a normal mind. The color is hideous enough, and unreliable enough, and infuriating enough, but the pattern is torturing. You think you have mastered it, but just as you get well underway in following, it turns a back-somersault and there you are. It slaps you in the face, knocks you down, and tramples upon you..."

The increasing sense of dislocation and imbalance is intensified by the cunning use of props and lighting; Hegh might put on a single high-heeled shoe, forcing her to limp, or don sunglasses that mask her face with a terrifying maenad-like anomymity. A wedding dress becomes at once the symbol of her imprisonment and the badge of her illness. When at last the woman breaks free into madness - the only freedom left open to her - Hegh growls the text through a microphone, declaiming like a rock star poet.

Peter Evans directs The Yellow Wallpaper with nuance and precision; it's inventively lit and the sound design, using music and pre-recorded text, is spare and effective. Without any fuss, the staging frames and focuses Hegh's performance admirably. On all levels, The Yellow Wallpaper is a very classy piece of work: riveting, disturbing and beautiful.

The Store Room
Critic Watch

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Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Sixteen Words for Water

Sixteen Words for Water by Billy Marshall Stoneking, directed by Lawrence Strangio, designed by Peter Corrigan, with Tim Robertson, Caroline Lee and Natasha Jacobs. La Mama, Carlton Courthouse until March 26.

"Pull down thy vanity", wrote Ezra Pound in a bleak moment. "Thou art a beaten dog beneath the hail / A swollen magpie in a fitful sun." Those lines give an arresting image of Pound himself: at once beaten and desolate, and swollen with vain intellectual hubris.

At the time he wrote them, after the liberation of Italy by the Allied forces, Pound was imprisoned by the American military authorities in a cage in Pisa. He had been making broadcasts for Mussolini's Fascist Italy that bitterly excoriated the US government. He faced the death penalty for treason in wartime, but was judged too unsound of mind to face trial, and was instead incarcerated in an American institution for the criminally insane for 13 years, until the campaigning of his literary friends resulted in his release.

Sixteen Words for Water is set at this time, when Pound was a celebrity lunatic visited by the literary elite and curious students, and a governmental embarrassment. Although this play was written more than 15 years ago, it seems to have a particular cogency now; either the times have caught up with it, or we have retreated back to Pound's era. Pound was a dissenter, and a most difficult one: a supporter of Fascism and a vocal anti-Semite, who railed against the sins of usury with the fervour of an Old Testament prophet.

But he was also one of the giants of 20th century literature: fascinating and infuriating, revolutionary and brilliant. T.S. Eliot famously called Pound "the greater craftsman" in his dedication to him in The Wasteland, to acknowledge the master's editorial advice. He is still a radical influence in contemporary poetry. His prosodic ability makes me catch my breath: he can make a line sing as few others can. And his Cantos remains one of the brilliant failures of modern literature, a monumental work that inevitably crumbled under the weight of its own ambition, as flawed and magnetic as its maker.

This poet represents a direct challenge to the odd idea that great art and great virtue necessarily go together. To admire an artist is not necessarily to share his or her vision or ideology; and an unpleasant ideology does not guarantee that an artist's work is no good. No one interested in modern literature can afford to ignore Pound. And his attraction to Fascism and anti-Semitism was not uncommon among artists in the early 20th century; Eliot and Djuna Barnes certainly shared his anti-Semitism, and Marinetti and the Futurists, among others, were famously Fascist.

Still, Pound's campaigns against the US government disturbed his friends. Puzzling over his political convictions, his great friend Williams Carlos Williams commented that, despite it all, Pound still had "the true naivety of a poet". This strikes me as an insightful comment: poets are apt - curiously perhaps, since poetry is an art that to a great extent depends on ambiguity - to be very literal about language, to demand that it means what it says. In a pragmatic world which to a great extent depends on hypocrisy and half meant statements, such naivety can be a perilous thing. It's an insight that informs Sixteen Words for Water, which is written by another American poet, Billy Marshall Stoneking.

Stoneking's approach is simple: the play consists of dialogues between Pound and two women, one a psychiatrist who is appointed to write a government report, the other an infatuated student. What the dialogues eventually reveal is the problem of Pound (not least the problem he posed for himself), as a stubborn, intelligent human being of surpassing loneliness. All his rhetoric is there, unvarnished and repugnant, but also his hatred of the capitalist war machine. He considered usury - the lending of money at interest - to be the great evil of the modern world; and who, in the age of Halliburton and international money markets, can really argue with that?

It makes for a wordy play, but Pound's irascible wit, mule-headedness, abrasive honesty and, in the end, his sheer pathetic humanity, more than compensates for those moments where the script tips over into the sheerly explanatory. This is a very finely directed production, staged with a subtle and witty theatricality by Laurence Strangio. There are many clever touches - I especially liked how Pound served tea, simply writing the word on a piece of paper. It at once has a Spike Milligan absurdity and suggests something about a poet's attitude to language.

Peter Corrigan's set is deceptively simple: a pen surrounded by orange plastic, hung with half a dozen washing lines on which Pound pegs his poems. The phsyical restraint of the washing lines - the actors are always having to stoop and lift them up to cross the stage - suggests imprisonment extremely effectively, and Pound's orange jumpsuit has more contemporary associations. The performances too are detailed and convincing. Natasha Jacobs and Caroline Lee are much more than mere foils to the central role of Pound but even so, Tim Robertson's bravura performance (is he channelling Ez?) steals the night.

The play leaves you with the dilemma that was Pound himself. Many of his beliefs (but by no means all of them) were indefensible. How can you disentangle the political beliefs from the poetry and the man? And is such a disentanglement - which has been attempted by some of Pound's admirers - in fact desirable? On the other hand, should he have been imprisoned simply for what he said? Of course, if he had not been a famous poet, Pound would have been summarily shot for treason; but all the same, the question remains - an uncomfortable question that has no easy answer - whether any state that imprisons its difficult dissidents can really claim to defend freedom of speech.

La Mama Theatre

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The Big Con

The Big Con by Guy Rundle, directed by Aubrey Mellor and Denis Moore, with Max Gillies and Eddie Perfect. Malthouse Theatre until April 3.

Sometimes I feel ambivalent about political satire. Is it merely a comforting release that assures us (the Right - or in this case, the Left - Minded) that we are superior to those we dislike? Might it not be, in some way, inherently conservative, for all its assumption of subversiveness?

I wonder if, rather than provoking thought, satire might simply confirm one's beliefs. George Bush's surreal approach to the English language might be amusing, but does mocking it make any difference? After all, his hokiness is a large part of his appeal in the fundamentalist heartland; and sneering at it just proves that those chardonnay-sipping elites are, well, elitist.

On the other hand, laughter is a human survival technique. Witness the black humour that flourished in Poland under Communist rule, or Jewish comedy. Making jokes about things that would otherwise make one despair is a vital expression of human defiance. The Big Con is intelligent enough to generate that kind of vitality, but at the end of the evening, I found that ambivalence nagging me. Perhaps I like my satire very black indeed.

The Big Con is impression comedy, familiar to those of us old enough to remember Max Gillies' television shows in the 1980s. The conceit is that we are at a right wing convention hosted by the Centre for Independent Analysis (rather suspiciously like our own right wing think tank the Centre for Independent Studies but with the acronym CIA, which is emblazoned either side of the red velvet curtains).

Gillies has teamed up with comic cabaret crooner Eddie Perfect, complete with Australian Idol hair moussed up into an improbable fin on top of his head, and a footballer's tuxedo. He has the nasal pop star delivery and dazzlingly vacuous smile down pat, and a selection of songs which grow steadily bleaker as the evening wears on. Numbers like "Don't be so Damn September 10" or a happy holiday tune about the joys of Guantanamo Bay are coolly savage attacks on the cynical pragmatism of our times.

It is, as Barry Humphries might have it, a "very nice night's entertainment". The show works well in the cavernous Merlin Theatre, and Guy Rundle's script is pointed and wittily informed. Gillies skewers all the usual suspects - Alan Jones, Rupert Murdoch, Phil Ruddock and, in a portrayal of eerily accurate grotesquerie I found almost unwatchable, John Howard. I enjoyed especially the appearance of Keith Windschuttle, the revisionist historian, and the curiously likeable portrait of Amanda Vanstone, on tour with her show Amandatory Detention. Perhaps the most successful sketch is a surprise appearance by Tony Soprano, working some PR for the US government.

The satire encompasses its audience, and is almost as critical of the homilies of the Left as it is of those of the Right. Human folly is not, after all, confined to any particular ideological stripe. At times (I think this comment is the No. 1 sin of theatre reviewers, but hell, sometimes you have to say it) I thought the script was a bit wordy, and the comedy sagged. Sometimes it was derivative (George Bush's line, "My fellow electricians" is a direct steal from the Dead Ringers gag "My fellow watermelons").

Comedy of this kind is of the moment, dating as quickly as yesterday's papers, and necessarily parochial. I had a good time, for all my afterthoughts, and so did the full-house crowd; the two and a half hours whizzed by. It might only be speaking to the converted, and it didn't leave me with any powerful impressions which stayed to haunt me later; but, as that old cartoon has it, sometimes you've just got to laugh.

Picture: Max Gillies as Phillip Ruddock

Malthouse Theatre

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Tuesday, March 15, 2005


Just to blow my own trumpet for a moment...

I have just uploaded issue 9 of my annual literary arts ezine, Masthead. Yes, theatre is part of it. But also many other riches - poetry, including a lot of work in translation, essays and visual art. Check it out!

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Monday, March 14, 2005

Cruel and Tender

Cruel and Tender by Martin Crimp, directed by Julian Meyrick, design by Ralph Myers. With Catherine McClements, Jacek Koman, Paul Ashcroft, Kim Gyngell, Colin Moody, Betty Bobbitt, Melissa Chambers, Katerina Kotsonis, Ratidzo Mambo, Dino Marnika, Elliot Noble, Jasper Swarray. MTC at the Fairfax Studio, Arts Centre until April 23.

I'm unconvinced by Cruel and Tender, Martin Crimp's new take on on the "War on Terror". There's a certain over-artfulness in its art, a shallowness in its metaphor. Put it beside coruscating theatrical imaginations like Howard Barker (whose play The Castle remains one of the political masterpieces of recent British theatre) or the visceral sexual politics of Sarah Kane, and its lustre dims considerably.

The first play of Crimp's that I encountered was the genuinely impressive Attempts on her Life, and on reflection I think this vertigo-inducing text, with its cumulative excavation of the way mediated representations enter and distort our realities, is a much more pertinent and powerful comment on our times than Cruel and Tender, despite the latter's overtly contemporary attention to issues like the war in Iraq. This play is an updated take on Sophocles' tragedy The Trachiniae, or The Women of Trachis, and I can't help thinking it might have been more interesting to stage the original play.

Sophocles' tragedy has the grand clarity of Classical Greek theatre, in which human action is drenched in a kind of transparent inevitability, the capricious workings of Destiny or the Gods on fragile mortals. It is based on the myth of the hero Herakles, who in the opening scene is away from home conquering Euboas, a region of Greece. He sends some of his booty - the captured princess Iole - to his pining wife Deianeira. Alarmed and jealous, Deianeira sends her erring husband a shirt impregnated with the blood of a centaur who tried to rape her and was killed by Herakles. In his dying moments, the centaur told her that his blood will magically ensure her husband's fidelity.

But the centaur, predictably perhaps, turns out to be vengeful rather than generous. The shirt has a very different effect to that Deianeira intends - Herakles is stricken with a "blood-fed flame" that devours his skin, and in his agony seeks the escape of death. When Deianeira's son Hyllus charges her with murdering his father, Deianeira kills herself. In the final scene, Herakles orders Hyllus to kill him, to release him from his agony, and to marry Iole, both of which charges he accepts reluctantly.

Crimp follows this basic storyline, but updates it with contemporary references. Herakles becomes a General (Jacek Koman) who is pursuing the hydra-headed War on Terror by means of bloody campaigns in Africa. Deianeira is his spoiled wife Amelia (Catherine McClements) , who is waiting his return amid rumours that her husband is a war criminal. Iole is Laela (Ratidzo Mambo), an African princess for whom the General has razed an entire town. The Chorus is replaced by Amelia's attendants, and various messengers and other dramatic dogsbodies become UN or government officials. The centaur's blood is transformed into a phial of biochemical liquid, the gift of a former spurned lover who now works in a germ warfare institute.

On the evidence of this play, Crimp simply doesn't possess a tragic muse. And while he deftly handles the various levels of language - from high Classical rhetoric to naturalism - it doesn't translate into effect. It's a play written with avowedly political intent but, unlike its model, it suffers from a certain metaphorical fuzziness. If it's meant to be read as an analogy - and this is what it seems to ask - it actually doesn't throw any but the most general of illuminations over our darkly flickering modern world.

The notion of terror as a hydra which grows two heads each time one is slashed off is one I can get, sure. But that's a very minor motif. A reference to germ warfare rebounding on those who use it is fine - but as a love philtre - even a revengeful love philtre - it's beginning to stretch even my credulity. The idea of the war hero-turned-criminal, spurned and betrayed by those who initially supported him, is perhaps more interesting - but the public politics of this durable theme is better pursued in Shakespeare's Coriolanus. Crimp's main point is to set the play in Amelia's bedroom, looking to sexual politics as a metaphor for warfare. In doing so, whether he intends to or not, he literally domesticates the politics of the War on Terror.

It's not as if this idea hasn't been explored before, and brilliantly: the connections between war and sexuality were assayed with damning force by Sarah Kane, most notably in her play Blasted. What Kane has, and Crimp lacks, is a heightened sexual anger, and the ability to express it. This difference is perhaps best discussed by looking at the character of Laela, the General's African mistress whom he has sent to Amelia to care for until his return.

Laela is all Otherness, knowingly exploiting her sexuality as material leverage. Her violent capture, despite her initial refusal to speak, seems to disturb her surprisingly little: she is a willing accomplice in her own subjugation. Her main concern is to be "nice" to the General so he will buy her the dresses she wants. Perhaps this is an ironic portrayal of the Stockholm Syndrome, or perhaps this is Crimp's commentary on corrupt regimes complicit with the War on Terror; but to my mind it backfires badly. If Laela is meant to symbolise "Africa", or any nation ravaged by the West's "diplomacy by other means", it's a portrayal full of the traditional Imperialist cliches: Africa is amoral, grasping, childlike, inscrutable, and willingly connives in its own rape.

In the original tragedy, the captured princess Iole is not from a distant land, but from a neighboring province of Greece. Her grief and shock at her abduction by Herakles is conveyed with poignancy and dignity by her total refusal to speak: her muteness holds all her protest. The transformation of this character into Laela matches the mutation of the character of Deianeira - queenly, distracted and tough - into the egocentric narcissism of Amelia.

The metaphoric blur that results is partly because of a collision between the literal realities to which the play is referring and the poetic myth of the original tragedy. There's nothing wrong with keeping both aspects in play, but I never felt free to enter either reality: somehow, instead of highlighting each other, they cancelled each other out.

Cruel and Tender was originally produced (in English) at the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord, directed by Luc Bondy, who commissioned it. From what I have read, Bondy's production foregrounded the media portrayals of the "War on Terror" and the knickknacks of contemporary technology, and may have filled out some of the complexities and ambiguities signally lacking in the MTC version, directed here by Julian Meyrick.

And perhaps my doubts arise as much from Meyrick's rather one-dimensional and sometimes clunky production as from any shortcomings in the script itself. Amelia's cry that she is not a victim resonates especially uneasily. In this play, she is nothing but a victim, a bored and faithless trophy wife eating her heart out for her absent husband, and she suffers her fate in gratifyingly traditional ways.

In this production, which lacks any ironic distancing, the gesture towards the archetype of the "strong woman" remains only a gesture. “I could be mistaken for a victim,” cries a defiant Amelia, “and, that’s not a part I’m prepared to play!” This is not a feminist rallying cry, as it is played: like everyone else, Amelia is a victim. Her defiance is a luxury, the result of her privilege, which comes at a terrible and unacknowledged cost to others. This subtext is simply absent from Meyrick's production.

The performances themselves are never less than competent, but I feel that most of the cast has problems in pitching the differing registers of the text as it shifts from realism to mythic grandeur. Many of the more heightened passages or monologues are actually obscured by the music which rises, increasingly predictably, to signal another "poetic" bit. The stage comes alive late in the play when the General (Jacek Koman) finally appears, horribly disfigured by his disease. Koman, always a reliably skilled and committed actor, is the only one who really handles Crimp's challenging shifts in linguistic register.

The design - basically a naturalistic bedroom of hotel-style blandness and luxury - is unsuited to the Fairfax Studio, where the audience sits diagonally on two sides of the stage. Like Luc Bondy's original production, the design of which was more abstract and clinical, it features a reflective window back stage. Behind the darkened glass, lighted figures can suddenly appear and vanish. It's an interesting device; but on a stage that is not a proscenium arch its effects are obscured from those who aren't watching it front on - which includes at least a third of the Fairfax audience.

In short, Cruel and Tender strikes me as a fair bit of sound and fury signifying, when you really examine it, surprisingly little. On the other hand, this is the latest in a number of recent productions which confront the important issues of our times and, if nothing else, it places theatre squarely in the charged social arena where it belongs.

Melbourne Theatre Company

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Wednesday, March 09, 2005

The Laramie Project

The Laramie Project, written by Moises Kaufman and members of The Tectonic Theatre Project, directed by Chris Baldock, scenic design by Janine Marshall. With David Gardette, Ron Kofler, Catherine Kohlen, Olivia Hogan, Paula McDonald, Vicki Smith, Dan Walls and Brett Whittingham. Act-O-Matic 3000 at Chapel off Chapel, Prahran, until March 30.

Ok, I'll out my own bigotry first: documentary theatre isn't my bag, baby. I usually end up wondering why somebody didn't write a play.

The proper retort is, of course, that a documentary play is still a play, as much an imaginatively-made artefact as any five act tragedy. But in less than scrupulous hands, the knowledge that the story enacted before you actually happened to real people can obscure this simple fact, in the worst circumstances demeaning both theatre and the event it records. In the case of The Laramie Project, which centres on a vicious homophobic murder, this could be an especially difficult problem.

On October 7, 1998 a young gay man, Matthew Shepard, was discovered bound to a fence in the hills outside Laramie, Wyoming. He had been savagely beaten by two local men, and left to die. The crime became an international cause célèbre, a symbol of shocking intolerance and hatred. The impact on the tiny rural town of Laramie was profound, and it is this impact that the play documents.

For the first ten minutes or so, as the actors earnestly outlined the process of traveling to Laramie and setting up the interviews, I wondered if someone wasn't making a terrible mistake. There's a certain piety in some kinds of American soul searching that I find difficult to swallow. Even by the end, when I was genuinely moved, I still wasn't quite convinced that as a play The Laramie Project was wholly successful. But even given my reservations, which are too complicated to elaborate here, I can't argue with the quality of the work: this is powerful theatre, and beautifully realised by Act-O-Matic 3000.

New York troupe The Tectonic Theatre Project created The Laramie Project after visiting Laramie six times over two years. They recorded more than 200 interviews, which were then shaped into a play by Moises Kaufman and the company. Perhaps I'll be forgiven some investigation into the formal properties of this work, as they are such an important part of its effect.

In his approach to the writing, Moises Kaufman consulted the master. He derived the play's form from Bertolt Brecht's essay The Street Scene, in which Brecht suggests "an eyewitness demonstrating to a collection of people how a traffic accident took place" as a model for epic theatre. "The epic theatre," says Brecht, " return to the very simplest 'natural' theatre, a social enterprise whose origins, means and ends are practical and earthly." A pragmatically human enterprise, then, refusing transcendence in favour of an activist social purpose.

The Laramie Project also places itself squarely in a strong American tradition of artistic critique - for example, it has close affinities to Truman Capote's non-fiction novel In Cold Blood, about the reasonless murder of a wheat farmer and his family in rural Kansas; and its belief in theatre as an arena for moral drama is exemplified in playwrights like Arthur Miller.

Kaufman decided to frame the company's exploration of what happened in Laramie in its own terms: the mechanisms of creating the project are exposed as part of the action, and the actors relate the circumstances of interviews before enacting them. This has a signal advantage: it permits a degree of honesty which it would be otherwise difficult to attain. The company's judgments and responses are as exposed as the people they interview.

At the same time, the form of the play does something interesting. The audience is never allowed to believe that the play is transparently telling a story; the "willing suspension of disbelief" which permits an audience to believe in "characters" is continually disrupted by a deliberate distancing. As an audience we are asked the same question that Father Roger Schimdt asks of the theatre company: are they telling it "correct"?

An important part of this aesthetic is the stripping away of theatrical illusion. One of the effects is, according to Brecht, to shift the focus of an audience's moral judgment: character is revealed by a person's actions and not, as in more traditional ideas of writing, the other way around.

Another effect is to foreground the complexities of conflicting perceptions of an event. In the case of The Laramie Project, it is a stunningly successful convention: preconceptions are blown away, and reveal instead something much more complex - and perhaps in some ways more troubling - than the media-driven picture of a redneck small town. Laramie, like most human communities, is imperfect and contradictory; but I think what comes over most strongly is a vindication of George Orwell's faith in the basic decency of ordinary people.

It does not end - cannot end - on a note of triumphal redemption; the human desire to find meaning in the terrible death of Matthew Shepard is balanced by the homophobic hate-speech of bigots like the Rev Fred Phelps, or the bitterness of the statement that, despite everything, nothing is substantially different, that no legislative changes have been made to enshrine anti-discrimination laws in Wyoming. Given the growing power of fundamentalist right wing forces in the US, that bitterness seems justified. But the play's concomitant focus on the power of ordinary resistances - on human decency - is a reminder of genuine hope.

A question Brecht asks in his essay is: "What about the epic theatre's value as art?" The elegantly stripped-down aesthetic of The Laramie Project, present in both the script and the production, is here its own answer. Its artistic value is not in question.

Director Chris Baldock intelligently eschews props or costumes, exploiting instead the full resources of his excellent ensemble cast. The very beautiful set, evocatively lit by John Cooper, is simply eight chairs placed on a bare stage which has a painted backdrop of a skyscape. Baldock imaginatively works the mise en scene to enact things as various as diary entries, a meeting by the fence where Shepard was found or a busy court room, the actors shifting between different roles as the script demands. Like the conceit of the play itself, these are deceptively simple means which work with brilliant efficacy.

Act-O-Matic 3000 is certainly a company to watch. I last saw them producing some short plays in the back room of a pub in Richmond. Then, I was impressed by their focus, passion and intelligence. It's exciting to see what this committed company can do with some resources. This is political theatre at its best: theatre that offers its questions with a clarity that never compromises their complexity, and that asks its audience, first of all, to think.

Picture: Act-O-Matic 3000 performing The Laramie Project

Act-O-Matic 3000
The Guardian: Extreme Prejudice

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