“Why do we hurt the ones we love”. Timothy Conigrave’s heartfelt memoir, Holding The Man (1995) grapples with this great human paradox. This story was written as a death bed confession, an apologia of sorts. Penned by Conigrave, achingly, honestly, lovingly during the two years that followed his lovers death from HIV AIDS related causes, just before Conigrave himself succumbed to the virus.
Today, thanks to Director David Berthold and writer Tommy Murphy’s 2006 stage adaptation there is renewed interest in Conigrave’s memoir, his activism, his play Soft Targets (Australia’s first full theatrical response to HIV AIDS) and his observational stage texts, including Thieving Boy and Like Stars in His Hands, recently revived at La Mama during Midsumma 2008. After four sell out Sydney seasons, and this extended MTC season at The Malthouse, Murphy’s adaptation looks like it has also captured the hearts of Melbourne audiences as well. Equally as an entertaining stageplay and as a soothing prompt for collective remembrance.
This great teenage love story between an aspirant actor and a dedicated Essendon Footy fan unfolds before and during the HIV AIDs pandemic of the 1980’s and 1990’s. It is a story which resonates so palpably with audiences. Audiences comprising young and old. Most notably, a generation of young men who have survived the virus into midlife. And alongside these audience members are the families and female friends who once nursed and cared for these young souls who weren’t so lucky. These many men and women share much in common including the loss of friends lovers brothers and colleagues who were struck down in the prime of life, leaving address books empty, relationships unfulfilled, great plays (like this one) unwritten, great art never realised, great secrets never shared, gifts never exchanged, slender threads dangling in shreds.
Not that long after man had landed on the moon, Melbourne High School Students Conigrave (Guy Edmonds) and John Caleo (Matt Zeremes) fell in love, irrevocably. It was the gender bending 1970’s. It was a time when jeans were flared, men grew their hair long and when pubescent young men shared crushes on pop stars like Bryan Ferry. Crooning along to Ferry’s chartbusting hit, Let’s Stick Together, made perfect sense to a league of boys transitioning to men, boys like Conigrave and Caleo who shared their masturbation fantasies like Fantale wrappers at a Weekend movie matinee.
We meet two families, we meet the parents, we meet the mates, we meet the circle jerkers, we meet the Gay soc meetings at University, we meet NIDA teachers, we meet the doctors who dish out the AZT treatments, we meet Conigrave performing Soft Targets at Griffin Theatre in 1986, we meet lover Caleo’s alter ego’s beset with dementia, memory loss and we meet an avalanche of Conigraves involuntary memories. We meet the soul of Caleo on his deathbed, we meet the puppet double of Caleo, the dessicated pile of skin and bones shed by the spirit that is too great for any mortal vessel. We meet the grief, we meet the loss, we meet the longing, we meet the cursory precious sense of love and belonging where true love resides.
Highly polished ensemble performances, from seasoned performers. Guy Edmonds and Matt Zeremes paint a sublimely subcutaneous portrait of gay lovers Timothy Conigrave and John Caleo, before and during HIV AIDS. Tender, deft and erotically charged.
Actors Jeanette Cronin, Nicholas Eadie, Eve Morey, Brett Stiller take on a mercurial chorus of supporting roles, with great accomplishment adding equal parts comedy and pathos to the production, delivering nuanced performances. With several sell out seasons under their belts and this extended season at The Malthouse, the cast demonstrates they have built extraordinary momentum, extraordinary grace.
Holding The Man’s “inaugural” cast ensemble, under the careful vision of Director David Berthold is set to earn a rare and sacred place in Australian Theatre heritage. This is magical realism at its finest, ghostly spectres, metaphysical muses, eternal souls and ultimately mortals who learn to love, learn forgiveness and learn to never forget.
Arguably, what is most significant about Murphy’s loving adaptation is not simply that he has breathed new life into Conigave’s life story. But, maybe unwittingly this stageplay, for so many audiences, has also allowed new breath, new life and vigour into much of the unfinished business between past friends. Renewing interest in the great unrealised works of art by departed friends. Maybe Holding The Man acts as a kind of metonym for that wondrous invisible repertoire of unwritten plays, unstaged dance spectacles, unpainted paintings, unpenned lyrics and unsung songs now forever lost. And that the slender threads remaining, are not forgotten. These lingering souls who visit this play, lap up this theatre, tapping once again into the wellspring of great dreams, visions, fantasies, enthusiasms and hopes of the spirits ever among us, can once again pick up the threads. Great stuff.
Melbourne Theatre Company presents
The Victorian Premiere of a Griffin Theatre Company production
Holding The Man
adapted by Tommy Murphy
from the book by Tomothy Conigrave
Venue: merlyn theatre The CUB Malthouse
Previews: from 14 March 2008
Dates: 19 March - 26 April 2008
Performance Schedule: Mon & Tue 6.30pm (17 & 18 Mar 8pm), Wed 1pm & 8pm (no mat 19 Mar), Thu & Fri 8pm (no perf 21 Mar), Sat 4pm & 8.30pm (15 Mar 2 & 8pm)
Bookings: 1300 136 166 (from 28 January 2008)