12 March 2008

Holding the Man


Holding the Man
MTC
12 March 2008
Merlyn Theatre, CUB Malthouse 



Holding the Man has been leaving audience members in floods of tears since its first production in 2006 by Griffin. Return seasons and new venues have let many more join in the cathartic weeping. MTC have brought it to Melbourne.

Holding the Man is playwright Tommy Murphy’s adaptation of Tim Conigrave’s book, published months after Conigrave’s death in 1994. It is a tribute to the love of his partner John Caleo, who died in 1992.

I’m of the age, occupation and social circle that this play targets. The Grim Reaper set my attitude to safe sex, I have friends who lost most of their friends and I sat in an AIDS ward and saw patients treated differently. I remember the AIDS jokes. What does GAY stand for? Got AIDS yet? (I actually feel quite icky putting that in writing.) A bloke walks into a party where a group of his friends are shooting up. “Aren’t you worried about AIDS?” he asks. “Don’t worry”, his mate replies, “We’re wearing condoms.”

I am horrified that people in their teens, twenties and now thirties are complacent about safe sex. If you weren’t there in the 80s – this play may speak volumes to you.

But don’t worry; it isn’t a safe sex agitprop piece. Holding the Man is a lovingly told biography and ultimately a love story. The context is specific, but the emotion and journey are universal.

The context and emotion are inseparable though. John and Tim would have lead different lives if they hadn’t been born in 1959 and brought up in Melbourne. They barrack for Essendon, snogged in the Menzies Building at Monash Uni, Phoebe (the constant hag) appears as Dorothy in a shopping mall Wizard of Oz, Supertramp rocked, pants were high and hair was big. And people who lived in this world of hags and soft rock anthems began to get very sick and die.

The 80s allows for a lot of comedy, but it also lets us see a time where fear and misunderstanding dominated. When John is in remission from his cancer, but is still very ill from AIDS, he says that the cards will stop.  He got get-well cards for cancer, but not for AIDS.

We see one death on the stage. I did question the use of puppets in Act 1, but this choice become clear. If you have ever seen a person dying from a terminal disease, you know that no healthy person can look that emaciated and that ill. A puppet replaces the actor for his last moments. This puppet is almost unrecognizable. Grey skin tries to cover a skeleton, eyes look huge and we hear the laboured breathing of the actor standing next to him. This scene is stunning. Stunning in its reality, in its emotion and in its theatricality.

If Holding the Man were a piece of fiction, different dramatic choices would be made. I really liked how Murphy maintained Conigrave’s voice, but perhaps his desire to present a loving and authentic tribute may have inhibited some choices. Dramatically, the work could benefit from more conflict, more shades of grey and some more negative characters. Everyone was so nice. At times it felt a bit like watching Home and Agay. I really liked the honesty in presenting the more negative side of Tim, such as him telling his parents about his HIV the week of his sister’s wedding. From a purely dramatic point of view, I think more of this kind of choice and action would ultimately benefit the stage story.

I also found the presentation of the women characters quite distracting and ultimately disturbing. Mothers, friends, hags and the token lesbian appeared to be the clowns in the piece. There were screaming harpies and the one sympathetic mother was played in drag. Some of the performances were very funny, but I felt that there were too many negative, and unbelievable, stereotypes.

At the end of the night, I wasn’t among the weeping.  But whether it moves you or not, Holding the Man continues to prove how important, and how satisfying, it is to see our own voices, places and times on our stages. I really look forward to seeing future productions and interpretations.

This review appeared on AussieTheatre.com

December 2012: I finally read the book.
It's lovely and honest and the women are just people. I really enjoyed it; as much as an incredibly sad read can be enjoyed. For anyone who wasn't around at the time or just didn't understand the impact HIV/AIDS, give it a read.

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