No sitting on the fence

I think I know what happened to 21-year-old Matthew Shepard, of Laramie, Wyoming, United States, on the night he was murdered. He was picked up in a bar by, or he himself picked up — it doesn’t matter who initiated the tryst, it was going to happen anyway — two horny boys of the same age and hormonal daring, as high-flying on drugs as he was loosened by drink, and the trio went off, far out of town, to indulge some narcissistic group-sex fantasy. As things proceeded, a truth manifested itself: Aaron McKinney and Matt Michelson, his co-sex conspirators, were avowedly straight; Shepard was as openly gay.
At some point this truth proved too real for the other two, and what began as coupling turned into carnage. Shepard paid the price of being the agent of their liberation — if only for a moment.Is that what happened? It doesn’t matter what I think, for we’ll never really know, and that is not the point of The Fence — Peter Hayes’s outstanding dramatic interrogation of a hate murder perpetrated in the US Midwest in 1998. The point is that everyone who sees The Fence will have their own interpretation of these events.The format of Hayes’s one-man drama is deceptively simple. Drawing on a series of contemporary media interviews with inhabitants of Shepard’s small-town world, the actor-writer plays each supporting character in turn, steadily building a profile of one overriding personality and, as importantly, a community. Less running commentary and more a series of questions, the actor’s narration urges the audience to tackle the issues themselves from the data assembled. Most daringly, Hayes attempts to give this American story a local habitation and a name, through apparent autobiography: he inserts his own experiences as a ‘white, South African, gay male” into his text, responding to Shepard’s story as ‘I” — a compellingly naked first-person speaker whose own history frankly colours and informs the occurrences described. This is a bold device, at once making the Shepard story familiar and accessible — homophobia and, by extension, ‘us and them” prejudice is as virulent here as in the US — while reminding us à la Bertolt Brecht that Hayes’s is no grand master narrative, but a particular person’s partisan view. Depending on our situation, we will each have our own take on Shepard’s life and death, and the play behoves us to think about our personal circumstances in achieving judgement.Cumulatively, The Fence urges us to investigate our own prejudices about any grouping of ‘the other”, whether they be minibus tax drivers or pestering road-side vagrants. Hayes’s engagement of the audience is suave; at once gentle and accommodating, he is also unstintingly rigorous, treating us like sentient beings, thus obliging us to become so, too.And thus, there are problems. Amid all his stage paraphernalia, both about his career and Shepard’s, Hayes fails to point up in his poster-pictures the striking visual similarity between Shepard and his killers — an obvious clue to narcissistic mutual attraction — while more importantly begging questions about gay life and identity. Why is it, exactly, that so many single gay men in (Western) society are murdered? Is it fair to lump many instances — Hayes dolefully roll-calls recent such South African deaths — together, thus placing gay men, almost by definition, in the sentimentalised position of victims? The actor-writer evokes the familiar ‘coming out” trope of gay narrative, with regard to both Hayes and Shepard, with sensitivity; the nature and challenges of gay life after coming out are elided. We don’t feel we are given enough data here to make informed judgements, especially as the performer insists throughout that we think about (male) gay experience.This besides, Hayes’s dedication and engagement with his audience forcibly remind us what live performance is all about.

The Fence runs at the Sanlam Studio, Baxter Theatre Complex, until April 12. Book at Computicket or Tel: (021) 685 7880

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