By Drew Sheldrick
There are so many threads to the Holding the Man story that in four years since its premiere it seems to have amassed its own strange mythology.
From the moment it debuted at Griffin Theatre Company’s Stables Theatre in 2006, there’ve been unusual tales about Cate Blanchett and leaky air conditioners and unending serendipitous connections between the creative team and the original novel.
Most remarkable of all has been the seemingly unfaultable ongoing collaboration between playwright Tommy Murphy and director David Berthold.
Back in early 2006, I interviewed Murphy while he was adapting Timothy Conigrave’s memoir to the stage. Even then he had so much of a connection to the source material that it seemed portentous he was involved.
He and Conigrave had both worked extensively at NIDA and Griffin, and Murphy was even writing sections of the play at his local Potts Point coffee house, Hernandez — one of Conigrave’s favourite haunts.
The fateful convergence of artists involved in the show continues now that Holding the Man heads overseas to make its West End debut. Joining Berthold and Murphy to head up the London production is comedian Jane Turner, who was close to both Conigrave and his partner John Caleo during their time in Melbourne.
“We knew of Jane’s connection to the story very early on, while we were still working on the adaptation,” Berthold said.
“We were given a photograph of that school production of Romeo and Juliet that happens very early on in the book and play. To our astonishment, we noted one Jane Turner in the cast. The English producers first suggested her, without knowing any of this, and of course it seemed right.”
Given the work’s far-reaching connection to many in the Australian arts community, it was also no surprise that the show remains one of the most successful theatrical productions in Australia in recent years. But after four seasons and a national tour here, all eyes are on the reactions of the British.
“Speaking to the locals involved in the production, I’m extremely encouraged about the universality of Tim’s story,” Murphy said.
Berthold noted that despite it being a very Australian story, he and Murphy were very happy with the responses they saw to productions of the play in San Francisco and New Zealand.
“Both audiences received the story in much the same way as Australian audiences had. So I’m hoping that will be the case here in London.”
Guy Edmonds and Matt Zeremes will reprise their roles as Tim and John at Trafalgar Studios. They’ll be joined by Turner and new recruits Simon Burke, Oliver Farnworth and Anna Skellern.
On his decision to bring back Edmonds and Zeremes for the London production, rather than assembling a completely British cast, Berthold said it was hard to imagine the show without them.
“They were very young when they first did it — around 23 or 24. I had a feeling that a new maturity might be found now in their performances and so it has proven. They were always good, but now they completely inhabit, own their roles,” he said.
Of its various incarnations, Murphy said the very first opening night will remain his most intense experience. The guest list on the night included people who had worked closely with Conigrave in theatre, and his parents.
“I watched their [Tim’s parents] faces perhaps even more than the show,” he said. “At interval, I realised that the framed photos of Tim and John we had planned to be in the foyer had been left on my desk. I jogged home so their photos would be hanging when the audience departed. And, really, I think I just had to get away from the intensity.”
Both Berthold and Murphy have had great success outside of Holding the Man. Berthold now helms Brisbane’s La Boite Theatre Company and comes to London direct from finishing work on his critically-acclaimed Hamlet. Meanwhile, Murphy teams up with Neil Armfield at Belvoir later this year to debut his new work, Gwen in Purgatory.
But if you wanted any more proof that Berthold and Murphy’s winning partnership was foretold in the stars, you only had to look at the success of their Sydney Theatre Company production of Murphy’s Saturn’s Return. Part of STC’s main stage season in 2009, artistic directors Andrew Upton and Cate Blanchett quickly graduated the show from its experimental season in the Wharf2Loud season soon after its premiere.
Along with Holding the Man’s international success comes the unavoidable talk of a film adaptation. Murphy insists any such project would be a difficult undertaking.
“The key to the stage adaptation was that Tim had been a theatre maker; theatricality was embraced. That game provides nothing for a screen adaptation. I’d be confident that a love story such as this has the potential to make a beautiful film, but that all remains to be seen,” he said.
But as to whether the meaning of the text has changed for Berthold or Murphy over the years, it’s clear they’re in agreement.
“The central idea of the play has remained firm: this is a great love story, told through the language and play of theatre,” Berthold said.
“I have always trusted that Tim’s story transcends its era, it transcends sexuality. Holding the Man aims to place the love story centre stage. That is something that never shifts,” Murphy added.