Holding The Man
Actor-author- AIDS activist Tim Conigrave died in 1994.
He was not quite 35 years old.
In 1995 one million cases of AIDS worldwide were reported to the World Health Organisation .
By 2005 that number had risen to 40 million.
Conigrave's memoir, Holding the Man , now adapted for the stage by Tommy Murphy, is a sharp reminder that if we learn nothing from history we are condemned to repeat it.
Just as that 40 million statistic was reached last year, there seemed to be an awful inevitability in the finding that despite - or perhaps because of - the sophisticated anti-viral drug regimes ("cocktails") now available, a highly resistant strain of HIV which rapidly progresses to full-blown AIDS is now on the rise in New York city.
If that all sounds grim, it is. There's no getting away from it and, like Conigrave's breathtakingly candid memoir, the play's strength lies in the unflinching detail. At the same time, however, Holding the Man is a love story and it's also wickedly funny.
Holding the Man is the story of Tim (Guy Edmonds) and John Caleo (Matt Zeremes), two Melbourne boys who met as 15-year-old schoolboys and, despite hiccups and hurts along the way, were together when John died - two years before Tim.
Because of Conigrave's effervescent mind and painful honesty, it is also a vivid history of the last two decades of the 20th century, in Sydney, where Conigrave emigrated - as an acting student to NIDA and thence to the Stables theatre where this play is enjoying its sold-out world premiere season.
Tim and John's excellent adventure is depicted in all its awkward, furtive and thrilling aspects. John is a footie hero (hence the title) and Tim is the bold boy who knows what he wants despite not having a clue how to get it. By the time they are on their different university career paths - a professional qualification for John, gay activism for Tim - their fate is already sealed, although neither knows it.
Backing up the intelligence, conviction and power of these central performances, Jeanette Cronin, Nicholas Eadie, Robin McLeavy and Brett Stiller take on multiple roles as 44 other characters from their lives in a dazzling display of sharp writing, direction (David Berthold) and generous ensemble acting. The first half is awash in febrile schoolboy activities which are simultaneously excruciating and joyously funny: a priceless masturbation scene provokes as much laughter as a confrontation with a bigoted father engenders groans.
The second half, inevitably, is dominated - quite literally - by the spectre of AIDS and neither Conigrave nor Murphy flinch from continuing to tell it like it is. The effect is a rollercoaster for the audience which is alternately exhilarating and agonising and almost constantly compelling.
Brian Thomson's set of theatrical lighting and the messy detritus of busy lives makes easy transitions from boyhood to a theatre life. Costumes by Michael Agosta cover the spectrum from scraped schoolboy knees to the glam nonsense of 80s disco-dom, with a corresponding sound design from Basil Hogios and lighting by Stephen Hawker.
This production telegraphs its place in the Stables pantheon of legendary achievement by its current performance at the box office. It will tour nationally in 2007 and it's only right that Holding the Man should be seen by the widest possible audience. It tells a timeless story of love in a time of catastrophe; it reminds forcefully of the enduring power of honesty and bravery and more: it is wonderful, meaningful entertainment.
Holding the Man SBW Stables Theatre extended to December 23;
Holding the Man by Timothy Conigrave (Penguin) and Holding the Man and Strangers Inbetween: two plays by Tommy Murphy (Currency Press) are available at Gleebooks .