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Looking at "Holding the Man"

‘One of the most successful Australian stage productions in recent years,’ Holding the Man, makes its West End debut this month at Trafalgar Studios. Ahead of its opening, William McBride takes a closer look at the story, and catches up with David Berthold, the man who has directed the piece in six previous seasons, including its world premiere in late 2006.

“Holding the Man” is a production I have tracked vicariously since its debut at Sydney’s Griffin Theatre in 2006, but which I have never seen. I have a number of trusted sources on the ground in Australia who have, however, and their feedback has been uniformly glowing; the production is said to be profoundly moving.

The play’s director, David Berthold, currently resides in my hometown of Brisbane, Australia and though we had never met prior to our interview, this tenuous connection had me anticipating forthcoming feelings of camaraderie and professional admiration. When I first saw that “Holding the Man” was coming to the West End, I was glad for the chance to finally see the production I had heard so much about.

“Holding the Man” is ostensibly a biography play spanning the short lives of Timothy Conigrave, and his partner for 15 years, John Caleo. The play is based on a popular memoir of the same title by Conigrave, who died from AIDS-related illness in 1994, aged 34 – one year before the book was first published, and two years after Caleo’s death, also from AIDS-related illness. The book won the United Nations Human Rights Award for Non-Fiction in 1995, and is, Berthold says, both a ‘love story’ and ‘social document’ of its time, that is: 1980s Australia.

In 2006, and at Berthold’s suggestion, the memoir was adapted into a play for Sydney’s Griffin Theatre by Australian playwright Tommy Murphy, who himself has emerged over the past decade as something of a prodigy in Australian playwriting, winning numerous awards for his work. Murphy, who is now 30, was 26 when he adapted “Holding the Man,” and Berthold has described him as “a writer at the beginning of his career, but in charge of his art.”

Berthold has directed the play in six productions across Australia, including it’s world premiere in late 2006, prompting those who make such calls (i.e. unattributed Wikipedia authors, and journalists who read Wikipedia) to deem it ‘one of the most successful Australian productions in recent years,’ which, critically-, commercially-, and counting the prizes it has won, it certainly is.

I found the experience of reading “Holding the Man” as a play text – which is presently the only way I’ve been able to experience the story – beguiling. Initially, the insistently simple, colloquial language sent me sailing through the story without paying close attention to its structure as a piece of theatre, which is, in fact, its greatest strength.

In order to condense a memoir – a lifetime – into a play, Murphy runs the episodes of Tim’s life into one another. Weeks pass within otherwise naturalistic scenes, with subtle shifts in tense the only signifiers in the text; years of life are summarised in abstract sequences that would last only a few minutes on stage.

The support casting poses a problem of how to incorporate the collage of individuals that come in and out of any life into a stage production, and here, four actors take on almost 50 roles, including parents, friends, teachers, school children, astronauts and vintage, semi-famous Australian actors.

It is great that these potentially problematic requirements of the adaptation have become the most compelling technical aspect of Murphy’s text, offering repeated opportunity for tense, funny, or emotionally loaded dramatic contrasts that reflect the basic human intimacy of the story.

Examples that come to mind include Tim’s years studying acting at NIDA, which are represented in one farcical movement piece, where a break up and reconciliation with John is played as if it’s a drama-class exercise. The actor playing John’s conservative father, a character who is mostly intolerant or hostile to his son’s relationship, must also play one or more of Tim’s casual lovers. Later on in the play, Tim interviews someone in the final throes of AIDS-related illness for a social theatre project; the interview subject is a grotesque, wheezing puppet, making the disease seem abstract, horrific and ridiculous. In the very next scene Tim and John test positive to HIV, and it enters their day-to-day lives.

The character of Tim is onstage in every scene of the play. He introduces the show, and closes it, and offers regular asides to the audience throughout. The result of Murphy’s writing is a story that seems to swirl around Tim, and which, pushing beyond linear biography, feels like a combination between one sweeping, intoxicated memory-trip, and a naked dedication to a lost love, delivered from within the encroaching shadows of Tim’s own death. Much is made of the humour in the play – in reviews, in the play’s PR drive, and by Berthold – and that is in there, but it is an incredibly sad story.

Berthold was instrumental in the play’s creation. It was he who first introduced the book to Murphy, and nurtured the process of adaptation. In the aforementioned director’s notes, Berthold speaks of the impact of the book on him: “I first read the book when it was published in 1995 – the day it hit the bookshops. I bought it on my way to the airport to catch an international flight. I read the book in one go, as many people have, and found myself blubbering over the last fifty pages or so, as many people have. My fellow passengers must have thought I’d lost it. I had read a few of the early chapters in manuscript form thanks to my friendship with Nick Enright, who shaped and edited much of the book, and so knew some of what to expect, yet the physical impact was a bombshell.”

In the interview Berthold speaks affectionately of Tim and John, both as characters in his play, and as the historical men on whose lives the story is based, referring to them by their first names. He never met them, but says that they have many mutual friends and colleagues.

One of these is Jane Turner, the famous comic actress from Australia’s most prominent television export, “Kath and Kim,” who takes on 12 different characters as a supporting cast member in this production. Berthold tells me Turner actually knew Tim and John, and many of the characters represented in the play, which makes for some potentially striking meta-theatre opportunities.

“I think she was really relieved when she actually read the play,” Berthold says. “She adored the book, which she read when if first came out, of course, and she knew most of the people in it, but she said, if the play was crap she wouldn’t have done it.”

“She brings a lot of authenticity to the story, because it was completely her period. She is the same age as Tim and John, she went to those schools, knew all those mothers, knew all those fathers, knew quite a lot of the characters in the play, in the story.”

Berthold mentions more than once the sense of duty he and Murphy felt in getting the adaptation of what he calls ‘an iconic book,’ correct. This gave me a sweet image of Berthold, and Murphy, as honourable custodians of a story that predates them, and that is bigger than themselves or any one production.

“There’s a magic in the book that’s hard to put your finger on,” says Berthold. “If we got it wrong, we knew we’d never be forgiven.”

When I try to steer Berthold towards making a comment about the wider topic of HIV AIDS and its impact, (both then and now; in the play and in society), he is reluctant to let this dominate the conversation.
“In story terms, [HIV AIDS] is one of the many complications, one of the challenges, that the relationship faces, [but] the play is certainly not about AIDS,” Berthold says.
“Tim and John thought about relationships in very different ways, and that [negotiating their relationship] was one of the great challenges for them. When they first developed HIV-AIDS, then that was another challenge. So it has a dramatic function as much as anything. It’s not mentioned until quite late in the play.”
This is an assessment that, in isolation, I largely accept, but it flags up something that has been bothering me about the way the production is being presented. A couple of times throughout the interview with Berthold, but mostly when reading reviews of the play’s prior productions and the PR material for this one, I perceive a discreet avoidance of aspects of the play’s main themes, by way of assertions of other, countervailing themes.
In almost all reviews I have read of “Holding the Man,” which is both comedy and tragedy, what is insisted upon is how funny the story is (‘Wickedly funny’ is the second-most prominent quote on the poster). The two main characters contract AIDS at the height of it’s shocking social impact, and consequently die premature deaths, but this information is framed as ‘just one of the challenges they faced as a couple,’ and is mentioned only obliquely in the PR effort. The play is about a homosexual relationship, but what is insisted upon is the story’s transcendence of demographic barriers, and the extent to which a mainstream, heterosexual audience has enjoyed the production in the past. The play is Australian but, as it is entering a London market, it’s pre-proven appeal to different cultures is assured (by way of successful past productions in San Francisco and Auckland).
All of these assertions are true, but this is mostly because the writing (and, by all reports, the production) is very good, and because all good works of art/theatre/literature, practically by definition, contain multitudes and hold universal appeal. But the repeated insistence on this notion of universality – which is, admittedly, a timeworn PR tactic driven by a natural desire to attract a big audience – is a problem because it risks obscuring the actual themes of the play, which form its identity and are what makes it special.

A crude, reductive summary of “Holding the Man” is to say, with a tinge of bigotry, that it is an ‘80s Australian gay AIDS play.’ But to brush over these themes likewise does the piece no justice.

I was reluctant to enter this point here because I don’t see this as a sinister, or even an especially conscious, agenda on the part of the production, but it was a point that has jarred with me multiple times over the past few weeks. I feel that the subtext here reads that a heterosexual, British, contemporary audience would be put off by the play’s actual themes – a notion that, if true, (and I don’t believe it necessarily is), shouldn’t be countered with what is perhaps inadvertent conciliation.

I am content, however, that as has happened to the production in its six previous incarnations, glowing reviews and word-of-mouth speaking to its quality will bring in full houses of diverse audiences by the time the run is in full swing.

“Holding the Man” stars Guy Edmonds, Matt Zeremes, Jane Turner, Simon Burke, Oliver Farnworth and Anna Skellern. The season, which is effectively a brand-new production, will run for 10 weeks, from 23rd April at Trafalgar Studios.

[Photography from the Original Australian Production by Robert McFarlane.]


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