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Another view on the fence

Thoughts on Peter Hayes’s The Fence

Jean Meiring

I was surprised to read the glowing praise of Coenraad Walters (on LitNet) and Guy Willoughby (in The Mail and Guardian) for Peter Hayes’s one-man show The Fence, which recently ran in the Sanlam Studio at the Baxter Theatre in Cape Town. I seem to have seen a different production.

Hayes is perhaps best known for his performance in the mid-nineties of the one-man show Get Hard, in which he famously and scandalously — for South Africa — bared more than just his soul on stage.

Now, once again, Hayes puts a gay man centre-stage: this time it is Matthew Shepard, the young American whose brutal killing, in October 1998, at the hands of two louts in Laramie, Wyoming, where he was a student, has subsequently become widely mythologised.

Hayes portrays all the dramatis personae in this piece. He uses their very words gleaned from newspaper interviews conducted shortly after the tragic incident. These characters range from Shepard’s parents, Judy and Dennis, to Aaron McKinney, one of his two killers. Hayes also includes minor fly-on-the-wall voices, like that of the barman on duty in the joint where Shepard made his date with death. Thus by weaving together thick as well as thin strands of narrative, Hayes attempts to convey the complexity of the Shepard story.

Sadly, his attempt does not succeed. The tapestry which he constructs is disjointed, rather than multilayered and complex. Presenting a story from many different perspectives is often a salutary exercise; this is especially so in the case of a story such as this, which is easily reduced to a slender single narrative in order to make it palatable for television audiences and newspaper readers. However, Hayes fails to convince me that the inclusion of some of the minor characters adds anything to the whole.

What is especially glaring and inexplicable is the exclusion of the second killer, Russell Henderson (whom Willoughby calls Matt Michelson in his review). Surely his is a central voice? Surely his exclusion is dramatically unsound? Surely an especially interesting aspect of the tragedy is the dynamic between McKinney and Henderson, two supposedly straight stereotypes?

What is more, Hayes fails to build any dramatic momentum. As soon as he starts pulling you into the events in Laramie, he reverts to his Peter Hayes persona, telling of his own experiences as a gay man and actor in South Africa. On paper, this layering sounds interesting; in practice it does not work. It jars and — at worst — embarrasses. Hayes’s attempt at exposing his own “us and them” mentality in South Africa today is intended to cut to the bone; it made me drop my head and intone: “No!”

Also, his half-hearted attempt at denuding himself is gratuitous: if there is a dramatic point to exposing your penis to the audience, do it thoroughly. Don’t shelter it behind a cupped hand. (And was the gay South African Richard Reeves, to whom he refers, in fact the famous writer Richard Rive?)

Furthermore, the range of characters is beyond Hayes’s capacity as an actor. Indeed, it is wise of him to avoid attempting American accents. However, he often employs base stereotype to differentiate between the range of personages: a fellow theatregoer commented over post-play drinks that no woman toys with her pearls in quite the queenish manner Hayes did on stage. Late in the piece, he also carelessly keeps on the string of pearls intended to signify Judy Shepard, even when he has moved on to another character.

The Fence has the whiff of missed opportunities about it. At base, the script should have been constructed in a more dramatically meaningful way. It could then perhaps have been as gripping as Walters and Willoughby seem to think it was.

boontoe / to the top

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