WHEN Hollywood actor Rock Hudson died in October 1985, media outlets around the world were flooded with news of AIDS claiming the life of the first major celebrity.
While Hudson’s death did not have much of an effect in dispelling the stigma associated with AIDS in the early days of the epidemic, it certainly raised awareness and galvanised people to talk about it more publicly.
Fast forward to 2015 — 30 years after Hudson’s death — an Australian play that depicts the mystery and controversy surrounding the final years of the Golden Globe winner’s life is showing in Sydney from February 3.
Called Playing Rock Hudson, its writer and co-director Cameron Lukey said the production is not just another celebrity biography.
“[It’s] a close look at the final days of Rock Hudson’s life, the events that followed his death, and the impact they had on his image and society in general,” he said.
Lukey said he has been fascinated by Hudson’s life from an early age, so writing the play was something he had always wanted to do.
“I read a biography of Rock Hudson when I was 15 and found his story fascinating, particularly the controversy surrounding his final years,” he told the Star Observer.
“I couldn’t understand why there hadn’t been a film or play written about that chapter of his life, but had no idea how to go about it. Over the last 10 years, I kept going back, trying to piece it together, but for someone whose image was so clear cut, his life was full of contradictions.
“Ultimately it was that complexity and uncertainty that inspired me to move away from a typical biographic take on Rock’s life.”
Shortly after his death, Hudson’s former lover Marc Christian sued the actor’s estate for reckless endangerment, claiming that Hudson withheld the true nature of his diagnosis for the last year of their relationship.
During the lawsuit, the most intimate details of Hudson’s life came under scrutiny and the impact of the case was such that it helped inform US and Australian legislation on the issue of HIV status disclosure.
“This is not a generational play”, Lukey said.
“Beyond its impact on the history of the AIDS epidemic and queer culture, Rock Hudson’s story also reflects our current obsession with celebrity rumours and the outing of public figures. Who is hiding in the closet and who will be the next to come out.
“There are still important questions surrounding why people chose to hide their sexuality or HIV status, and Hudson remains the ultimate example of what celebrities have to lose by coming out.”
When asked what he felt about the Australian theatre’s approach to HIV and AIDS-themed stories, Lukey said the number of productions that have been staged recently were good signs.
“I’m not sure if I’m in a position to say whether Australian theatre does enough to depict the issues [or] history of people affected by HIV and AIDS, but over the past year, productions like Status, The Death of Kings and the Belvoir’s Angels in America have clearly shown there’s a lot of interest and support for works that do so,” he told the Star Observer.
“Audiences are continually inspired [and] moved by the humanity of these stories, and I think that’s why plays such as Holding the Man continue to find new life.
“I only hope that Playing Rock Hudson can be a small part of that conversation.”
Lukey added the play’s season in Melbourne during AIDS 2014 in July was a rewarding experience.
“The Melbourne run was my first opportunity to see an audience’s reaction to the show night after night,” he said.
“It was fascinating to gauge their response, and a lot of what I’ve learnt from that experience has inspired [the Sydney] production.
“Hopefully we’ve maintained the objectivity of the Melbourne season while finding new ways to tell Rock’s story.”
PLAYING ROCK HUDSON
Where: Old FitzroyTheatre; 129 Dowling St, Woolloomooloo
When: February 3-15; various session times
Details: click here.