Holding The Man – Belvoir St Theatre Presents A Love Story With Theatre In Its Veins

Belvoir St Theatre in Sydney presents Australian stage classic production 'Holding The Man’.

'Holding The Man'

'Holding The Man', taken from the groundbreaking 1995 memoir of Tim Conigrave, became an instant hit from the 2006 adaptation. It addresses queer identity, and the quirks of love, set in the era between the 1970s and the 1990s.

Theatre kid Tim falls in love with footy captain John – and the pair experience a lasting connection, as they – and the society around them – change and mature.

Tim and John eventually test positive to HIV, and the world appears to fall away beneath their feet. They seem to lose everything but each other, as they prepare for what's to come.

The cast includes Danny Ball, Tom Conroy, Russell Dykstra, Rebecca Massey, Guy Simon, and Shannen Alyce Quan. It's directed by Eamon Flack.

Here, we speak to Playwright Tommy Murphy about the story, and this fresh new production.

Firstly, tell us about ‘Holding The Man’.
I do believe that Timothy Conigrave’s memoir is one of the great Australian love stories. Tim and John fall in love in high school. Tim’s a theatre kid and John’s the football captain. And this is the mid 1970s. Somehow they are instantly certain that their love is meant to be. They fight all opposition to that according to their two very different personalities.

Who is this play for?
Well I reckon everyone is invited to this party. It’s a funny night in the theatre. It depends upon a nimble, brilliant cast, inventive direction and imaginative stage design. Belvoir are really delivering on that. I’ve been to the design presentation and I am so excited for people to see this. Oh, and you’ll see a myriad of costumes stretching three decades as the six players become the traffic of many through Tim and John’s life. The costume designer is Mel Page who I just worked with on STC’s 'On The Beach'. Mel is so impressive with the beauty and swiftness of her many, many costume changes. She has every right to hate my guts, actually, for the workload of these plays, but hey she’s come back for another. Phew.

This is a work adapted from Timothy Conigrave. What does turning a book into a play involve? Where do you start?
I did this adaptation in a very intuitive way. I was 25 and I guess more in tune with the experience of young love and innocence than I am now. So I followed those impulses. Technically, I actually started with a spreadsheet. I lined up all the places and scenes and characters that I wanted to include and one thing was instantly clear: this adaptation had to admit its theatricality. It had to use it, celebrate it. And that was a good thing because Tim Conigrave was an actor and a playwright himself. His story had theatre as a setting throughout. “Theatre in its veins”, we used to say. That’s part of its charm. It celebrates the love of making theatre. That was unavoidable and it’s fun.

It’s set in the era between the ‘70s and ‘90s. What perspectives/commentary on the queer experience do you have for this time period?
I was acutely aware when I began that I was generationally removed. I am 20 years younger than Tim. When I emerged into adulthood, the HIV/AIDS story had entered a new chapter of combination therapies and survival. There was one mentor (I guess it’s okay to name the late and great theatre thinker Kevin Jackson here) who intimidated me with a warning to not undermine that era. I found the distance helped though. It was a research task for me. I interviewed people from the frontline. I made it my business to understand the shoulders I stand on as a queer person. That fascination and even a sense of discovery and wonder fuelled the writing.

This is a brand-new production. What sorts of things make it fresh for this particular iteration?
I’m really lucky. 'Holding The Man' has had many outings in different parts of the world. I regret missing the Italian translation in Florence just before the pandemic. I’ve seen most of the others. It’s a real privilege. Each one has its own new emphasis and original choices from its creative team. Each production speaks to a slightly different context. Now to have this new Belvoir production from Artistic Director Eamon Flack, at a company that I love so dearly, and where Tim’s own work was once given a staged reading (there’s a scene in the play set on the Belvoir stage) is a dream come true. I know that Eamon is already finding surprising ways to apply his particular stage magic to the storytelling. I know it will also speak to the queer moment in a new way. Personally, I want to be surprised. I want to see it reinvented.

What has been the biggest challenge in taking it from page to stage?
I suppose selecting and editing the material, but there’s been years of that now across many productions. I feel it’s pretty well honed now.

On the flip side, the biggest reward?
I guess the play’s longevity. I’m very grateful for that. But also, gaining friendships from the people who loved Tim and John. I never met Tim and John but I feel I know them. I certainly gained Tim Conigrave as a teacher of good writing. His key lesson is to tell the truth.

You’ve said this play is, in ways, a love letter to theatre. Can you explain why this is?
When I read Tim’s correspondence with his publisher I saw that he described his chapters as ‘scenes’. I think Tim’s own love and knowledge of theatre imbues the storytelling. The adaptation tries to uphold that. The play shifts modes a lot. It employs different devices and sometimes even mocks the mad artifices of theatre. And then it settles into a different tone. I’d like to think the play grows with Tim, our protagonist, across the course of the night.

And why do you think theatre is the perfect place for this story?
I realised looking at Stephen Curtis’ Belvoir set design recently that this is a story about community. Whether that’s a prestige boys high school or Monash University, or later in Darlinghurst in the crisis, the play moves through spaces dedicated to community. Belvoir is great at telling those stories. And theatre has to be fun so that’s a priority.

'Holding The Man' plays Belvoir St Theatre (Sydney) 9 March-14 April.