Sunday, 13 June 2010

Holding the Man

(We were on annual leave last week so we took advantage of that to go to the theatre, here’s the first play what we saw...)

Theatrical adaptations of books can be a very hit and miss thing, often more miss then hit. Holding the Man is adapted from the autobiography by Timothy Conigrave, it spanned the nineteen-seventies to the early nineteen-nineties and is a love letter to his partner John. This is story is so broad that it could easily have got lost on stage or else been a stilted and halting journey, with huge jumps between scenes. Instead, Tommy Murphy (the play’s adaptor) has chosen a highly theatrical style to tell this story and here it works.

The central characters of Tim and John are played by two actors while four other actors play the dozens of other supporting characters in this story. There are some lightening fast costume changes, sometimes an actor changes character by quickly changing wig onstage. This could be clichéd, just another fringe play produced with all the corners cut, but the style of those four actors overcomes this, they work hard to make each character separate, even the ones only seen in one scene.

In the mid-seventies, at an all-boys Catholic school in Melbourne, Australia, Tim meets John and fell head-over-heels in love with him; but John’s the captain of the football team. Then one evening they share a kiss, soon to fall into the heady nature of teenage relationships; but their relationship lasts, a strong cord always pulling them back to each other. They survive parental disapproval, university, trial separation, seeing others, and the explosion of gay life in the late seventies; but it is AIDS that finally pulls them apart. In the nineteen-eighties both Tim and John were diagnosed HIV positive, but it was to be John who died first from AIDS (Tim finished his memoir only weeks before he himself died).

This isn’t a fantasy of the ideal gay relationship, Tim and John’s relationship is all too real. They are both individuals, John wanting the quiet life with his lover and a home; while Tim explores self expression, first as an actor and then a writer, but also as a gay man. At university he discovered Gay Liberation, after that he took every opportunity to explore his sexuality, which leads him to cheat on Tim many times. On paper they would never have been lovers, but in real life their deep love for each other keeps drawing them back together and keeps them forgiving each other.

As Tim and John, respectively, Guy Edmonds and Matt Zeremes originated the roles in the original Australian production of Holding the Man, and their comfort and familiarity in the roles showed. They had a chemistry in their roles that made Tim and John’s deep love easily believable. Jane Turner (Of Kath and Kim fame) and Simon Burke provided outstanding support in more than a dozen roles each, ranging from both lovers’ parents through doctors to disco queens.

This play almost has the feel of a historical piece, of a history play; events have changed so much since the early nineties. Combined therapy has changed the scene of HIV/AIDS so much, AIDS no longer carries the mark of death it once did. This play is a reminder of the dark days of AIDS, the tragedy that tore apart and cut short so many lives.

The ending of the play could be seen as melodramatic and even sentimental, but it is appropriate for the story. John’s death was slow, painfully slow, and drawn out, the emotions of the characters being dulled by the sheer force of it all. This was how it was so often in life, not a simple and easy goodbye. At the end of the play we are given Tim left alone and broken, he has lost the love of his life and has nowhere to turn.

Recent history seems to get quickly forgotten. This play is a timely reminder of those dark days of the worst of the AIDS crisis, which we should never forget.

Holding the Man
Trafalgar Studios


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