Adapting a gay love story for the stage is no mean feat. Taking on board a popular book such as Timothy Conigrave’s Holding the Man is a bold move indeed. But it’s a creative endeavour that director David Berthold and playwright Tommy Murphy have relished.

Five seasons down the track and the stage adaptation of Holding the Man is well on the way to becoming Australia’s most successful gay stage drama.

It has now opened in Melbourne where it looks like continuing its record-breaking run and garnering the same outstanding critical response as it did in Sydney.

That will come as little surprise to fans of the original book. Conigrave wrote his memoirs in the wake of his partner, John Caleo’s death of HIV/AIDS related illness in 1992. The manuscript was completed shortly before Conigrave’s own death in 1994 and published the following year. It’s since never been out of print.

Holding the Man is essentially a love story. It details Conigrave and Caleo’s 15-year relationship from their first meeting in the mid 1970s at Melbourne’s Xavier College through to Caleo’s tragic death. As an autobiographical account it also documents Australian gay activism in the 1970s and the ravages of HIV/AIDS in the -˜80s.

In adapting the story for the stage, director David Berthold says the emphasis has been placed on the personal love story rather the gay politics.

It’s one of the greatest love stories gay or straight and we wanted to tell that principally, he says.

Berthold stumbled across the book in the midst of his own coming out process and realised then and there that it would pack a mighty punch as a theatre project.

Tommy Murphy, then resident playwright at Griffin Theatre was brought on board with the intention of producing the play at Griffin. Conigrave, a NIDA graduate, had a strong connection with Sydney’s Griffin Theatre Company serving on the board of directors and producing the acclaimed Soft Targets AIDS projects at Griffin in 1986.

Berthold says the main objective in adapting the play was to make it relevant to modern audiences.

One of the questions we had to answer was why put this particular book on stage and why now, he says.

We’ve found particularly with younger audiences it’s a really fascinating piece of social history looking at some aspects of gay liberation movement of the early -˜70s and the health crisis of the -˜80s -“ particularly through the prism of Tommy Murphy who was 27 when he wrote the play -“ so it is very much retold for a younger generation.

The stage adaptation with Guy Edmonds and Matt Zeremes in the lead roles has notched up four seasons in Sydney and a packed season at Brisbane’s Powerhouse Theatre. As with the original book, audiences have been reduced to tears during each performance.

Edmonds says the play’s impact is visceral with people openly weeping one minute and laughing hysterically the next.

There’s some magic that happens with it, he told Brisbane’s gay press. The resonance the story has with audiences is something that I’ve not ever really seen before.

Holding the Man is very much a Melbourne story. Conigrave grew up here and both families (Conigrave and Caleo) are Melbourne-based. Suffice to say the Melbourne Theatre Company’s season of the play is eagerly anticipated.

Berthold expects the story to find a special resonance in Melbourne.

We hope Melbourne will come to own the story, he says.

Tim’s family came to the opening at the (Sydney) Opera House and will be at the opening in Melbourne -“ they’ve become great supporters and I know they’re very proud to see Tim’s story live on.

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