Holding the Man

La Boite, February 26

I first saw Tommy Murphy’s adaptation of Timothy Conigrave’s memoirs half a decade ago. It was a devastating experience then, at Brisbane Powerhouse in 2008. Thus it is that I have no excuse for my rookie mistake at La Boite: I have forgotten tissues. David Berthold returns to direct the story of Conigrave, a Melbourne actor and playwright born in 1959 whose high school love affair would last a lifetime — albeit a tragically short one.

There are two distinct halves to Holding the Man: the youthful comedy of act one, and then the slower march of act two. To say it’s a play about AIDS would be to sell Conigrave’s work and life short; rather, it’s about life: growing up gay in Australia in the 1970s and 80s, being in love, making mistakes, and negotiating family, politics and health.

The frank dialogue sets the pace for act one. Murphy’s script is refreshingly open about sex — enough to cause a few jaw-drops in the audience. We share the stalls with a class of Year 11 drama students in uniform — from my personal experience at a religious high school, this must sure beat any sex education they’ve had to date.

Alec Snow is the right man for the job as Tim; we are immediately on his side as he casually woos the gentle athlete, John Caleo (Jerome Meyer). Murphy has translated their voices authentically to the stage; their sincerity is the quality the play pivots around.

Holding Man

As we dash through the decades, we meet a kaleidoscope of queer archetypes played by a strong supporting cast: Eugene Gilfedder, Helen Howard, Jai Higgs and Lauren Jackson. The cast are made vulnerable by on-set costume changes in amongst mirrors bedecked with stage lights. It’s a good choice — in Holding the Man, everything is exposed.

Throughout this, Tim and John’s relationship develops and wavers. Then the 1980s bring their horrific revelations. Act two slows its pace: while the epidemic rages, each tragedy is deeply personal. The strongest scenes play out as fevered amalgams of drama workshops and medical scenarios — these whirlwinds make our hearts thump with the protagonist’s confusion and fear.

At times, the ensemble seems a little uncomfortable with the staging. But then, Holding the Man isn’t really a play in the round, and this is the Roundhouse Theatre. Still, the discrete elements of Brian Thomson’s design are striking and effective, and Micka Agosta’s uncanny puppetry makes the play’s final scenes resonate. If 2008 is anything to go by, those chills may resonate for years.

It’s easy to look back on the 70s and 80s and think about how much Australia has changed for queer people, their friends and families. But the poster for Holding the Man (pictured) has Snow and Meyer in a pose evocative of Queensland Association for Healthy Communities’ now-famous “Rip & Roll” campaign of 2011. Last year Queensland Health defunded QAHC, which provided HIV prevention services to local LGBTIQ communities. It’s a pertinent time to revisit Conigrave’s story, and to ensure that it does resonate.

Holding the Man runs at La Boite until March 16.

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