We all had major crushes at school but only a lucky few of us actually got our hands on them. Tim Conigrave not only captured the school’s gorgeous footy star, John Caleo, but he went on holding the man, on and off, for the next 15 years.
He wrote the celebrated book -“ which is now a play -“ only after death finally separated them when John succumbed to AIDS. Tim went the same way two years later in 1994 and Holding The Man was published posthumously.
The book has astonishing emotional power, the teenage relationship etched with such truth and joy that readers by the end are racked by tears at the injustice of AIDS. Conigrave, later an actor and playwright, burned at the same injustice and co-authored one of the world’s first theatrical responses to AIDS. Soft Targets premiered 20 years ago at the same Stables Theatre and the story of its making is recounted in this play.
It is eerie to experience again that brutal time when AIDS cut through so many lives and obituaries every week in this paper ran for two pages.
Tommy Murphy, who has so masterfully adapted the book, is too young to have experienced this. He is liberated from the anger and brittle politics which inevitably permeate earlier works around AIDS, including Conigrave’s own Soft Targets. He is left free to explore AIDS just as an immense personal tragedy for these young lovers. Indeed, with John’s passing, Murphy writes one of the most harrowing hospital death scenes, but he doesn’t allow AIDS to upstage the rest of his play which is wondrously romantic, funny, concise and insightful.
The play’s truth rests on two finely dovetailed performers. Guy Edmonds has all the manic egotism of Conigrave, his artistry and activism, his restless drive for other (hilariously staged) sexual experience but also his devotion. And Matt Zeremes is utterly charismatic as the quieter John, cute, na? and, unlike Tim, doggedly faithful.
Around this core an ensemble of colourful school mates, conflicted parents, Gay Soc activists and bar flies, NIDA teachers and fevered thespians parade -“ all broadly painted in quick performances by the other four actors. Nicholas Eadie and Jeanette Cronin particularly shine in what is David Berthold’s knockout swansong production for the Griffin.
The season had to be extended even before opening night but please work to see this, and join an audience who gasp both in tears and in laughter.
Holding The Man is at the Stables Theatre until 23 December.