The BBC arts review, a fixture of Friday television, is a show we keep swearing we'll never watch again, but one we, for some perverse reason, keep coming back to. Four "experts" with very little to say, hold forth on the arts events of the week. They seldom listen to each other, so nothing in the way of dialogue takes place. Some characters are more irritating than others. In fact, we have a kind of hit parade of guests we would never invite to dinner -- Germaine Greer, wno has become self parody; the head of the ICA who constantly interrupts other people's contributions to repeat himself. Last Friday, the assembled "experts" held forth on why the nineteen-eighties has become chic again. One person opined that one can't discuss the eighties without mentioning the devastating effect AIDS had and how AIDS was a defining aspect of the era.
Hard on the heels of that discussion, we went to see Tommy Murphy's adaptation of Timothy Conigrave's memoir, HOLDING THE MAN. The acclaimed memoir, written in 1994, is a chronicle of a relationship and a period (1976, when Tim Cosigrave and John Caleo became teenage lovers, and 1992, when John died of AIDS, two years before Tim's death). The play, which had its Australian premiere, in 2006, is a picture of an earlier era and, in a time when gay marriage is more an issue than AIDS in the first world and the gay community, a love story with a sad ending. The original production has, after years of playing down under, has finally come to London with its original leads.
The Tim and John we see in the play are an odd couple. Tim is one of those people with no self censorship. He is "out" when others are more circumspect. Though deeply in love with John, he canot resist indulging in the sexual freedom of a period that devalued committed monogamous gay relationships. He tells his parents he has AIDS on the eve of his sister's wedding. While Tim is self indulgent, John is loyal, faithful, and a man of few words. Their relationship is on again, off again because Tim needs his freedom. Shortly after they get back together, they receive the death sentence that a positive HIV test was in 1985. Tim has become an AIDS activist, creating theater pieces and doing social work while John has a chiropractic practice in Sydney he eventually is too ill to maintain.
The play Tommy Murphy has crafted from Conigrave's memoir is perforce episodic, chronicling an era and a relationship. In addition to Guy Edmonds and Matt Zeremes, who have played Tim and John since the production opened in Australia four years ago, four actors (two men, two women) play a variety of roles, male and female. Some scenes are extremely funny, particularly an adolescent slumber party of Tim and his friends that turns into a noisy jerkoff session, a college gay liberation group meeting and a seventies gay bar. The tone changes when AIDS enters the scene early in the second act. Giant puppets depict the ravages of the disease. One of the most touching scenes in the play takes place at an expensive Sydney hotel. John and Tim have decided to give themselves a small celebration, complete with room service and champagne. John is already very ill, but the couple want to celebrate their relationship while they can. Tim confesses that he still is unfaithful to John: "That's my biggest regret. All the times I hurt you." John's characteristic response is "Don't want to talk about that."
The play is based on Tim's memoir and that causes something of a problem, because John's life is actually the more dramatic. We only have glimpses of his conflict with his staunch Catholic family and his reaction to Tim's betrayals. John was the golden boy athlete who actually had to pay a higher price for his relationship with Tim. Since he is a man of few words, we have to read between the lines until an ugly deathbed scene when John's father demands changes in his son's will.
Yes, this is a play about a marriage of sorts that began when Tim and John were sixteen year old boys and lasted until death. It is funny and deeply moving. David Berthold's production is perfect and the acting ensemble is excellent. Guy Edmonds and Matt Zeremes are getting a bit long in the tooth to play these young men and one didn't feel the heat of teenage sexual attraction that brought these guys together, but these are minor quibbles. I laughed. I cried.
HOLDING THE MAN, adapted by Tommy Murphy from the book by Timothy Conigrave. Directed by David Berthold. With Guy Edmonds, Matt Zeremes and Jane Turner, Simon Burke,Anna Skellern and Oliver Farnworth. Sets, Brian Thomson; Costumes and puppets, Micka Agosta; Lighting, James Whiteside. Trafalgar Studios 1. May 17 2010.