Based on the memoir of Timothy Conigrave, ‘Holding the Man‘ first takes place in 1970’s Australia, where the lives of teenage sweethearts Tim and John intertwine over the next 20 years together. Despite concern from both sets of parents that their sexuality would make their lives ‘difficult’, the pair are relentless in their mutual pursuits and slip into what appears to be an ideal union. However, when Tim acts upon his desire for an open relationship, his actions lead to life-altering consequences for them both. Tommy Murphy has adapted Conigrave’s text on to the Above the Stag stage, striving to retain the chest-tightening romance so present in the original.
This adaptation remains true to the episodic nature of the memoir, beginning with the pair as teenagers at school together in Melbourne and tracking their developing relationship across two parts. We watch Tim and John’s relationship develop through experiencing all the ‘rite of passage’ moments akin to first relationships – sex, drinking in clubs, studying, navigating the parents, eventually reaching the big fork in the road: wanting different things. The first half, though it takes a while to lift off the ground, is jovial, with many laugh-out-loud moments of innocent childhood banter and sassy witticisms. The second half, however, hits you harder than a bull in a corridor: the audience held it together for probably about 97% of the performance, but by the end there were several audible sniffs coming from all directions and several members wishing they had a Kleenex.
Jamie Barnard skilfully presents the complex character that is Tim, who is caught tempestuously between his genuine adoration of John but also his promiscuous carnal desire, unable to decide. Particularly with a memoir, a lead actor needs to thoroughly delve into the mind and soul of the original author, fully embracing his/her psyche in order to accurately personify their voice; Barnard’s handling of Timothy Conigrave’s immensely honest, often self-deprecating truths, prove his thoroughness in morphing into this character. This story is about unwavering loyalty and an intensely strong bond built on the most genuine, unfaltering love, therefore the key with transferring this to the stage must be to find two actors who can truly embody this intensity between the two main characters, otherwise the whole thing would feel lacklustre and disingenuous. Ben Boskovic as the sensitive and kind John is heart-warmingly apt, personifying forgiveness and acceptance; an excellent fit paired with Barnard as Tim. Boskovic’s presentation of a rapidly-deteriorating John in the second half is utterly believable, with each pained breath (not over-done, thankfully) causing a tremor of sympathy throughout the room.
A highly-skilled ensemble support the two leads, stepping effortlessly into numerous characters that surround Tim and John. Posing as parents, friends, doctors, teachers (the list goes on…), the variety of individual traits going into each character is abundantly clear, causing us to care not only for the narrative of our two main men, but also for the sub-characters’ lives. Additionally, Above the Stag’s productions never fail to disappoint in their creative features. This adaptation boasts another innovative, transformative set, with a beautifully striking, almost art-deco setting: a backdrop of red squares that light up and flash dramatically between scenes, as if to represent the moving forward and back in time. I lost count of how many set and costume changes there were, but the physically subtle yet visually striking adjustments worked superbly with the episodic structure. Added value was in the soundtrack to the production: songs classic to the era complemented the 15-year period in which the events take place, adding subliminal authenticity to the Australia-based play.
I left feeling deeply moved and lacking mascara I went in wearing, impressed with the elegant way in which ‘Holding the Man’ dealt with the devastation of the AIDS crisis of the 1980-90’s, respectfully transitioning from youthful, banter-filled scenes to the immensely ‘heavy’ ones with masterful sensitivity. Conigrave’s deeply important memoir is not only a story with which to adapt in order to touch the hearts of many on stage and screen, it is deeply important work that highlights the still ever-crucial need for raising awareness into HIV and AIDS, and promoting safe sexual encounters of all kinds throughout the world. Director Gene David Kirk has brought Tommy Murphy’s re-write of ‘Holding the Man’ to Above the Stag with a rawness and sensitivity that pays homage to Timothy Conigrave’s intentions, and will leave its audience feeling sentimental for their loved ones.
Reviewed by Laura Evans