Midsumma 2008 is presenting two award-winning shorts by Melbourne born playwright Timothy Conigrave at La Mama’s Courthouse Theatre. Conigrave is best known for his iconic and theatrical memoir Holding the Man (1995), which chronicles his 15-year relationship with lover John Caleo. After sold out seasons in Sydney and Brisbane, the stage adaptation of his great love story in the age of AIDS is a feature in this years MTC calendar, opening in March.
This revival season of two Conigrave shorts is welcome, and timely, an appetizer of sorts. Ironically, almost a decade after his plays fist appeared on Melbourne stages at The Playbox under the magical direction of Aubrey Mellor, HIV infections are on the increase. This season also serves as a memorial to the brief but incandescent career of Timothy Conigrave. An artist who succumbed to an untimely death from HIV AIDS related illness and, sadly, never witnessed the great enthusiasm his works instill in new generations of readers, theatergoers and lovers.
Director Robert Chuter of Fly On The Wall Theatre is well versed in presenting an entertaining melodrama, with lashings of homoeroticism. Thieving Boy, the first short in the program is a prime cut, Conigrave’s earlier work, and is the more naturalistic of the two. It tells the tale of adolescent love, evoking those awkward, fragile yet tender moments of invincible first love.
Moxy (Daniel McBurnie) is a 22-year-old tear away, serving time at Long Bay for a series of car thefts. He is granted special leave to visit home to see his dying father Brian (Chris Gaffney). This is a Christmas that Moxy’s family will never forget. His Mum Jude (Francesca Walters) and sister Tracy (Stephanie Lillis) do their best to make it a jovial affair. A little challenging given that in the aftermath of his stroke, Brian’s speech is severely impaired and what little communication there was in the family, takes a dire turn for the worse. During his leave Moxy also makes a surprise visit to his lover, a young medical student Tom (Heath Miller) who has a summer job as Santa Claus.
Tom (Heath Miller) is more than a little peeved that Moxy disappeared so mysteriously a year before. As the real story of his lover’s criminal activity comes to light, and a few lost love letters along the way, the two awkwardly pick up the pieces, and their relationship gets a second chance. But Moxy has a grievance or two with his Dad. And this unresolved conflict is casting a shadow over the life of their family. Brian was reckless, insensitive and probably homophobic. His dying father leaves behind a trail of anxiety. It's lover Tom, who helps Moxy and his kin find forgiveness within their hearts.
Director Chuter has evinced Thieving Boy as a rather heavy handed melodrama at times, forcing the grief out of the text, leaving aside some of the nuances and subtleties of redemption. That magic that is revealed when human frailty grapples with grief, loss and unfinished business is ably handled by Francesca Waters, whose prismatic performance carries the play to a satisfying close.
While lead actor Daniel McBurnie delivers a believable performance as the angry young man on the cusp of life change, Heath Miller falls a little short in his role, believable, but largely uneven. Some of the wisdom of Tom’s character seems lost in Miller’s gait, and this may well be the anxiety that comes with a short intensive season before two actors find their rhythm, their dance away from the rehearsal space.
Ultimately however, given the heart of the play is the invincibility of adolescent love, casting of these two roles is crucial. These two actors look incongruous together, requiring too great a stretch of faith the make the truth of the play hum.
Like Stars in His Hands is a meditation on love, a play that hums. Terrific casting, strong ensemble performances charged with eroticism, poetry and sensitively directed acts of grand passion in the spectre of illness, grief and loss.
As Simon (David Forster) fades from this mortal coil he finds a muse in the guise of Hindu God, Ganesh. Ganesh (Francesca Waters) dissolves in and out throughout the play, as Simon fantasizes about his failing body’s return to the great collective dust of the cosmos. His lover and carer Marcello (Luke Arnold), struggles to keep faith in final hours of their ill fated love, the challenges of palliative care proving too much at times. Simon’s slow dissent into dementia only aggravates the journey. But its their mutual friend Jimmy who helps to keep an even keel, even if via a radical course of care.
Jimmy (Gary Abrahams) is a photographer whose career is about to take off into the stratosphere. Marcello and Jimmy strike up a love relationship, throwing a curve ball into the three-way friendship. Simon’s dying wish is that Marcello finds love again, even it if is with their mutual friend. For this beautiful dying man, it is a fraught experience, as painful to observe as the wave of Karosi’s sarcomas enveloping his body, as painful to swallow as the handful of toxic drugs that have become his daily regimen.
Chuter directs the play with aplomb. The balance of pathos and humour in check, and the heightened melodrama tendencies kerbed. This short unfurled like a silk flag in a gentle breeze, graceful at times, taut, tense and then free again. Ensemble acting as engaging as observing a slow whirling dervish. And the naturalism, stamina and grace of actor Luke Arnold set him out, as an actor to keep an eye on.
Sadly, Conigrave himself succumbed to HIV AIDS related illness and never witnessed the groundswell of enthusiasm for his writing. Lovingly edited by writer Tony Ayres, these two shorts are a testament, to the creative kinship that emerged during the 1980’s and 1990’s between gay men. Ayres formed a friendship with Conigrave during his final years. And with his adversarial flair and that uniquest of talents, the careful intuiting that is, in a sense a type of posthumous mentoring – by completing an artist’s unfinished opus. We are indeed fortunate that these two works have kept Conigrave’s spirit burning bright, giving added vibration to Australian Theatre heritage, and hastening to remind us of the time when for many, HIV AIDS did equal death.
THIEVING BOY/LIKE STARS IN MY HANDS
Edited by Tony Ayers
Part of 2008 Midsumma Festival
Venue: La Mama Theatre @ The Carlton Courthouse, Melbourne
Dates: 19 January - 02 February, 2008 @ 8pm
Times: Wed - Sat @ 8.00pm; Tues & Sun @ 6.30pm