Review: Holding The Man

by Jane

Timothy Conigrave and John Caleo met in the mid-1970s at their all-boys school in Melbourne.  He was an aspiring actor; he was the star football player.  He went on to study at NIDA and work as an actor, theatre maker and writer; he went on to be a chiropractor.  Together since high-school, Holding The Man was Conigrave’s memoir of their relationship of fifteen-years, ending with the death of Caleo from an AIDS related illness in 1991.   Conigrave passed away with the same disease a few months before his book was published in 1995.

The memoir was adapted for the stage by Tommy Murphy, and is being presented in a new production directed by Rosabla Clemente for the State Theatre Company of South Australia in their final production for 2011.

Covering twenty-two years in just over two hours, at times Murphy’s script can do little but cover the most basic surface level of the relationship.  The most satisfying aspects of the script is how Murphy not only plays with a balance of comedy and drama, a comically heightened act one giving way to dramatically heavy act two; but also balances naturalism with theatricality.

Rather than shying away from existing in a live theatrical medium, Murphy’s script fully embraces the theatre.  The action takes place over twenty years in countless locations and with dozens of characters, and this is all presented in the one space with a cast of six.

Joining Luke Clayson as Tim, and Nic English as John, are Catherine Fitzgerald, Nick Pelomis, Geoff Revell and Ellen Steele, taking the men on their journey through high school, university, theatres, and hospitals.

At times, it feels all cast members are pushing slightly too hard in their performances.  It is the moments when they almost seem to fall back into their characters, these points where they settle into a moment of comfort, that the humanity comes through the most.  They all find these charming moments. I suspect the cast will continue to find more through further performances.

Morag Cook’s set is perhaps the true star of the production.  Wooden frames hold shelves encasing the stage. The play opens on ten-year-old Tim, eyes wide as Neil Armstrong lands on the moon and mate Damien touches Tim’s leg.  As a model astronaut moves across the stage, a subtle shaft of light hits the globe in the upper right corner of the set.  It is these constantly delicate touches in the design that add so much to the story of these two men.

The play of a memoir, Cook’s shelves build up with the trinkets and the memories, of the characters, of a lifetime. As a passage of life is concluded and a skin is shed, an object is left behind and a memory is saved.  Through the path from scene to scene, the set itself builds as a memoir around Tim and John.

Honouring the simple stage design, Mark Shelton’s lighting is unobtrusive and almost passes without note, this, too, playing into Murphy and Clemente’s dichotomy of naturalism and theatricality.  Used to tightly sharpen focus and subtly change the mood, it helps bring the necessarily natural life to Cook’s frames.  Stuart Day’s score also just gently rises and falls with the action.

Particularly in the more dramatic second act, Clemente directs with a caring and light-handed touch.  As the cast run around the stage, building the memories, or simply sit on the sides and watch the action, it feels Clemente has given Murphy’s script and Conigrave’s story much room to breath and hold their own.

And yet, for all of these qualities, I found myself perplexingly unmoved by the whole thing.

There has never been a point in my life when HIV didn’t exist. It has always been a heterosexual disease.  It has always been a manageable infection.  It has always been tested for in blood donations.  It has always been talked about in high-school health class.  In high-school science class.  In high-school society and environment class.

It has always been a horrible disease.  But it has never been my generation’s horrible disease.  We were taught what it meant, what it could be, how to avoid it and people could live with it.  We were taught “don’t have sex, but when you do have sex, this is what you need to do.

I am stating this because I’m trying to understand why I was so unmoved by the production.  I am trying to explain a reason why I wouldn’t have a connection to this subject matter.  But then, of course, this is false: peers of my generation sat in the audience and cried.  On my end, Angels in America is one of the most deeply affecting plays I have ever read, and one of the most remarkable screen productions I’ve ever witnessed.

This disease will be the end of many of us, but not nearly all. And the dead will be commemorated, and we’ll struggle on with the living, and we are not going away. We won’t die secret deaths anymore. The world only spins forward, we will be citizens. The time has come. Bye now, you are fabulous each and every one and I bless you. More life, the great work begins.

I think one of the essential elements missing was communication.  Sitting in the third row of the balcony, just where the seats start to bend around the curve of the theatre, I felt positively ignored by the cast who constantly delivered their performance to the stalls.  Not only did this leave me on the outer of a conversation between artist and audience, it left me, to be honest, completely frustrated with this aspect of Clemente’s blocking.  Tickets for STCSA are flat no matter where you sit, so then why should someone on the edge of row C in the balcony receive less of a show than the middle of row C in the stalls?

This is the second play in STCSA’s 2011 season that had an original production at the 105-seat Griffin Stables, to play here in the 614-seat playhouse.  I felt a disconnect in each of these productions, and an intimacy is surely lost, but this is by no means a peculiar oddity of the theatre. The balcony isn’t hard to bring in on the performance by design.  I have seen many productions (Metro Street, Page 8, and The Three Furies immediately spring to mind) that deeply affected me from those seats.  However, as I aired these grievances to others that night, everyone could think of an example where they sat in the balcony and watched a whole cast of actors performing to the stalls.

And so, perhaps it was that?  But such a lack of emotion from a confessed crier?   Someone who has, multiple times, had to take time to hide her face, hug her friend, regain her composure before walking out of the theatre?  I am somewhat gratified to find Alison Croggon had a similar response in 2008, and then I feel strange that I call myself a critic and still measure my response against so many other writers.

I feel the cause of my response possibly sits somewhere between my age, my seat, and the script which ever so slightly skims the surface these lives. Clemente, her creative team, and her cast have given a strong production: that is evident.  What exactly it was that I feel is missing is harder to describe.

The State Theatre Company of South Australia presents Holding The Man by Tommy Murphy, from the book by Timothy Conigrave.  Directed by Rosabla Clemente, design by Morag Cook, lighting design by Mark Shelton, composition by Stuart Day.  With Luke Clayson, Nic English, Catherine Fitzgerald, Nick Pelomis, Geoff Revell and Ellen Steele.  At the Dunstan Playhouse until November 13.  More information and tickets.

Photos by Matt Nettheim.