In Australian Rules Football, the term ‘holding the man’ signals an offence that results in a penalty. As playwright Tommy Murphy explains in his introduction to this play, in the case of these protagonists, the penalty was a cruel and undeserved one.
Based on the memoirs by Timothy Conigrave, Holding The Man recounts the love affair between Conigrave and his long-term partner John Caleo. Beginning at school, where Caleo is the handsome football captain and Conigrave is an outed drama club geek, the play spans 15 years through university, gay rights protesting, drama school, breaking up and getting back together, sexual experimentation and the ultimate arrival of AIDS in the 1980s.
A play in two parts, the first gets to the heart of being young and gay in 1970s Sydney. From their first meeting, where Conigrave scrawls thinly veiled declarations of love on Caleo’s pencil case, to their friend’s sweet acceptance of their badly hidden relationship and coming out to their parents who have yet to accept that homosexuality exists, Holding The Man speeds through each defining moment in their young relationship, doing so in a sometimes excruciatingly intimate and frank manner. When their horizons are broadened by the arrival of gay bars and gay university societies, Conigrave’s desires broaden too, temporally leaving Caleo behind in the search for sexual enlightenment and experience.
These years of freedom and exploration are cut short when the curtain rises on the second half; with the arrival of the 80s comes the arrival of AIDS, with lovers becoming carers and comedies swiftly turning to tragedies.
With over 40 characters in the play, four members of the cast take on numerous roles, running off stage as a scruffy schoolboy to re-enter as a flamboyant, kaftan-wearing mother or whipping off costumes onstage and pulling on a wig to make them suddenly 30 years older. Anna Skellern plays Conigrave and Caleo’s best friend Jessica, seemingly desperately in love with both of them, before becoming Conigrave’s over-the-top caricature of a drama teacher in the blink of an eye. Simon Burke transforms from a long-haired gay hippy to Caleo’s homophobic, distraught and bitter father, and Jane Turner steals the stage with her portrayals of bum-scratching teenage boys, bouffant-haired 70s mothers swigging wine from a wine box, and sombre doctors responsible for delivering death sentences.
Guy Edmonds and Matt Zeremes as the lovers resonate a million times brighter than any of the other characters however. Edmonds perfectly portrays Conigrave’s cocky confidence and selfish attitude while still remaining believably devoted enough to ensure Caleo’s – who is the more handsome, kinder and brighter of the two – constant, touching commitment.
Using touches of physical theatre, puppetry and what must be exhausting emotion night after night, Holding The Man creates a visually spectacular play which, other than simply telling a poignant love story, reaches a perfect equilibrium of laughter and inevitable tears to do justice to such a unique partnership.