Though inevitably and necessarily Holding The Man is part of the history of HIV/AIDS, it rises beyond that context to become a timeless tribute to the enduring power of love, and to resilience in the face of tests of loyalty, fear and weakness both from without and within a partnership.
Tommy Murphy’s adaptations of Tim Conigrave’s famous memoir for both theatre and screen have become established texts of both performance and politics in Australia with a wider resonance beyond. However, as Australia claws a tortuous path around and towards same-sex marriage, it is very timely on all sorts of levels that this new production comes to Above the Stag, where it receives a treatment both inventively comedic, heart-warming and thoroughly engrossing.
Though inevitably and necessarily this text is part of the history of HIV/AIDS, it rises beyond that context to become a timeless tribute to the enduring power of love, and to resilience in the face of tests of loyalty, fear and weakness both from without and within a partnership.
Broadly chronological in structure, the play takes us through the fifteen years of a gay relationship that began in a Catholic high school in Melbourne, experiences breaks and interruptions as Tim moves to train as an actor in Sydney, and then resumes ahead of a final shared struggle with illness and death at a time when attitudes to HIV/AIDS were at their most socially toxic and unsympathetic, and treatments agonizingly ineffective.
At its best the play explores the difficulties of shaping a relationship when there are no role models or supporters, and the problems that emerge when one partner feels they are too young to embrace monogamy, and the other dissents. It also finds the joshing humour and exuberance of young love in a gay setting.
However, this is probably not as good a play as, say, The Sum of Us, which received a very fine production here in 2015, led by the same director and designer. There is simply too much ground to cover in the first half, resulting in a helter-skelter of short scenes, played with great panache by the ensemble to be sure, but carrying little emotional weight or fine detailing of character.
Moreover the focus is simply too much on Tim, and not enough on John, who remains a very lightly sketched, introverted enigma, with little or no sense given of the importance of his sporting prowess (even the rugby reference in the title remains unexplained). This provides the actor playing him little to work on until tragedy intervenes. It is hard to see what Murphy could do about this since this is the trajectory of the source memoir.
The director adopts a light touch, rightly aware of the darkness to come. However, this is not quite enough. The light, bouncy, at times almost farcical coverage was fine up to a point, but a slightly heavier hand is needed on the tiller especially in bringing out early on the differences in temperament and personality of the two leads and the ruthlessly unsupportive, hostile social environment around them.
The second half is another matter. While longer in running time than the first, you do not notice time pass as the tragic screw tightens on the lives of the two young men. All the actors’ performances lift through the gears, and the raucous laughter of the first half is stilled.
Also, for many of the audience on press night the descent into the physical degradation and emotional suffering of HIV/AIDS was a personal, jagged memory journey which set up an intensity of communication between players and spectators which is rare, creating a performance event as well as a play, out of the evening.
A lot rests on the young shoulders of Jamie Barnard (Tim Conigrave) and Ben Boskovic (John Caleo), and they both find real depths of emotion in the later sections with a great delicacy of gesture and vocal inflection. Boscovic registers the hurt and vulnerability of his position with reticent grace, and Barnard finds the layers of narcissism and bravado needed to depict the less appealing aspects of Conigrave whose political radicalism seems to have been fairly self-regarding as well as brave.
The painful interactions with their parents, especially John’s, played by Annabel Pemberton and Liam Burke, are also well achieved, as well as the inarticulate inability of friends and professionals to find an adequate response to events.
Whether playing uncomprehending parents, or actors at NIDA, or friends, gay and straight, the ensemble distinguish their characters ably and distinguish themselves in the process. The pace is fast and furious, with lots of costume changes; but Australian accents are robust, and nothing goes awry.
Faye Wilson, in particular, gives sterling support as the loyal friend Juliet, and Robert Thompson displays a fine versatility in a multiplicity of finely calibrated roles. Joshua Coley’s portrayal of Peter, the friend and nurse, also had real depth and poise.
David Shields continues his remarkable run of practical yet imaginative and evocative sets at this theatre. The space is broad and shallow, presenting many challenges, and yet the solution here is both minimalist in structure, yet warm and practical in tone. A series of square frames, lit from within, and mainly in red, are matched by a flexible set of rectilinear forms that morph into beds, tables, storage units and other aspects of domestic interiors.
The cast rings the changes that open out or reduce the scenes from public ones to intimacy. The set does more than anything to keep up the pace in the first half and focus attention in the second. Jack Weir’s atmospheric lighting is also a crucial partner in this process.
The abstraction of the set might have been used to good effect in handling of the very last few moments of the ending. As things stood, it was a tad disappointing to see Barnard come out of character to report Conigrave’s passing, particularly when he had delivered the exquisite elegiac final monologue with such perfectly paced discretion.
At the original Griffin Theatre production puppetry was used to offer a final grace note suggesting John’s soul watching protectively over Tim’s last few months, just as he had in life. Perhaps some other kind of visual symbol or abstract lighting effect could have been found here to sum up the triumphant embrace of love that is the simple enduring core of what on the surface seems a modern tale of gritty realism.
What starts as a memoir and a text of radical politics does not always translate into effective drama as readily or easily as one might think, and there are points at which this play trips itself up. But that said, it is hard to see how it could have a more sympathetic and engaged production and at a more timely juncture.
There is a poignant contrast between the twists and turns of self-serving discussion in current Australian media and politics and the simple, brave stands taken historically by these men with the winning, charming, endearing representation of their story by this fine cast.