Saturday, April 13, 2024
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Holding the Man

Holding the Man
Scriptwriter: Tommy Murphy

Director: Eamon Flack
Belvoir Street Theatre
March 9 – April 14, 2024

Adapted by Tommy Murphy from Tim Conigrave’s 1995 best-selling memoir, first staged in 2006 and turned into a film in 2015, Holding the Man, while a queer classic of  Sydney literature and stage, has almost reached mythic status. Under Eamon Flack’s direction, this deeply moving story of “star-crossed lovers” not only honours the personal suffering of early and unwitting victims of HIV/AIDS but repositions them as emblematic of a continuing struggle against queer oppression.

It may seem that a 2024 production of a play based on Conigrave’s memoir might be looking back both from a medically privileged present and changed social attitudes on a now distant past. An affair begun in a 1970s Catholic boys’ school between Tim Conigrave and John Caleo might seem a world away as students of ’24 demand respect for their various sexual identities, nevertheless it is apparent that young queer love still evokes disapproval, cynicism, suspicion. Consequently, the staging of the first time Tim (Tom Conway) and John (Daniel Ball) discover the mutual enchantment of young love – turning mirror ball, reflected light, romantic music – they are at once in their own world but at the same time, as the theatre-in-the-round seating suggests, the focus of other eyes too ready to judge.

The boys have no guide as to how their relationship should play out. Tim, who as narrator, tells his side with an engaging frankness – he discovered he was a “poofter” at 9 coincidental with the moon landing – but John is taken by surprise. While Conway makes Tim’s mercurial, adventurous, self-deprecating and often defiant nature completely engrossing, Ball is very effective in endearing his character through fraught silences and a thoughtful awkwardness. Despite their almost opposite characters, or because of it, they navigate a bumpy journey from the first flush of joyous excitement through parental and social conflict to hurtful personal betrayal and culminating in a realistic commitment.

The endurance of their love over 15 years gives what is this queer story a wider application. As different as they are – Tim’s unapologetic appetite for life makes sexual fidelity an absurdity and John’s home-making instinct makes him long for monogamous commitment – they eventually compromise on a new roadmap for a relationship grounded in truthful love. However, the world intervened in the form of the HIV/AIDS crisis, and the raw reality of the “sex-death-horror thing” is grimly evoked beneath unsparing lighting.

Flack gives a signature appeal to this timely and dynamic revival of Holding the Man. While the widespread use of tissues testified to the emotional devastation of the final scenes, the memory of the wild and crazy moments of earlier times remained. A lively team of actors, Russell Dykstra, Rebecca Massey, Shannon Alice Quan and Guy Simon, had the audience laughing heartily as they performed characters from a modern queer commedia dell’arte, revelling in what was then experienced as a new-found liberation.

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