Holding The Man
Review originally published 2017 during its London run at Above The Stag.
Tim Conigrave and John Caleo are two names I think I will remember for the rest of my life. Every time I think of Holding the Man I think about how their lives might have turned out and what type of lives they would have made for one another. Holding the Man isn't just a love story it's a rare story about that connection gay men forge with another soul that is indescribable.
Ahead of the London run at Above The Stag in Vauxhall TNC interviewed playwright Tommy Murphy.
Hey Tommy, thanks for talking to tNC, how is everything going?
Um, a bit sea sick. I just got off a lobster boat. This was research for a TV project I've got going here. They said eat as much lobster as you want. Could not stomach a morsel of the stuff. That Indian Ocean is rough. All good now. Nice to chat with you.
Last year Holding The Man has its UK premiere at BFI Flare what was that experience like for you?
Those guys a great hosts. I didn't quite realise how involved the BFI Flare experience would be. As well as seeing some great cinema we participated in talks and all got to know each other. I have lasting friends from that trip. Unforgettable in every way.
What did it mean for you to be able to adapt your play into a film script?
It was eight year birth. It was fascinating. I had written for screen but I'd never been that immersed in the entire process. Film making is a giant machine. I got to see various facets of it from development, to raising the money, to casting and right through to the edit and conversations about music and sound. I deferred to the experts around me a lot but was also grateful to help shepherd it all through. The lessons from that experience are applied daily now as a I write new screen and theatre projects.
What was the biggest hurdle you faced whilst you where adapting the play?
Initially I thought the biggest hurdle was going to be the fact I am generationally removed from the era of the story. I worked hard to research but also to gain permissions and trust. In the end I think that distance was an asset because I was writing with wonder and fascination - and shock at times that this tragic battle was fought so recently. In the end the biggest hurdle is probably the fact that Tim Conigrave supplied such riches in his book and you've got to ditch a bunch of them.
Tell me a little bit about Holding The Man, when did you discover Timothy Conigrave's book?
Y'know... I teased my boyfriend Dane for crying when he read it. I literally judged it by its cover. I though perhaps it was soft porn or something. Idiot that I was. Yeah, so I laughed at Dane and ribbed him for crying at the end. Within about two years, David Berthold, the artistic director at Griffin handed me the book and said 'Is this a play?' He knew it was and he thought I was the playwright for it but I was like 'oh no not that book'. Of course, within a few pages I knew absolutely this book was exquisitely beautiful, absolutely that it was the stuff of theatre and I was begging to be the writer to take it on.
What was it about his life and story that connected with you?
Honesty. He's brash and he might be self centred at times but he admits it all. He doesn't cease the moral authority for himself as most memoirists do. He's brave like that. No bullshit. Tim has an anecdote early in the book about being in a confessional and I suppose that's in some ways the experience of the entire memoirs. I admire him greatly and have tried to emulate the guy - not that I ever got to meet him, sadly.
What was opening night like for you?
Well, we had Tim's family in. His father had never read the book but there he was prepared to watch a play, a retelling of his son's outpouring by a stranger in a public forum. I don't know why that was easier for Mr Conigrave - I don't think it was easy at all in fact and I felt the responsibility to do the right thing by all of them. But, y'know, they never censored or restricted me. They were always encouraging that we go for it, warts and all. Such courage. They are extremely proud of their son and his legacy. On that opening night, in a small theatre where two seating banks face in on each other, I did not watch much of the play; I was fixed on those faces in the audience, many of them characters in the work.
Have you always had a passion for theatre?
Yeah I discovered it as a teen in regional Aus. it kind of replaced church for me I reckon. I mean I jumped ship to atheism when I was ten but something stuck from my fondness for community congregation and, let's face, my love of the sometimes awkwardly camp pageantry of it all.
"Never despair when the wheels fall off a project. Step away and come back to it later."
How much has your approach to writing changed since you first started out?
Oh heaps. Every project has it own rules of the game. You want that. You want to listen to what the play or the film or the TV series is yearning to be instead of imposing your regular tricks on it. That said, I've been doing a succession of true life stories for the stage and for screen. I did a play this year about phone hacking victim and hopefully that's going to be adapted for the screen also. But I can feel this need to go back to where I started when I was writing stories that echoed life around me but were imaginative departures from the factual.
What was the first play you saw that inspired you to get into playwriting?
A key play was one written by a man in my home town. It was called Bell's Theorem by Gunnar Isaacson. That play got me writing because I sought to emulate Gunnar. He demonstrated that plays were not only from overseas and other era. Plays are about the now.
Do you have any advice for any fellow writers?
Love it for the collaboration. Never despair when the wheels fall off a project. Step away and come back to it later. Write things that feel exposing and make you sweat. Tim Conigrave exemplifies that.
And finally, what do you hope people will take away from this production?
We never thought the stage adaptation of Holding the Man would extend beyond its first short season in a small Sydney theatre. It's had productions around the world, sometimes every few months, pretty steadily over the last decade. That's extremely surprising and humbling. I can't take credit for the reason. It's because of Tim Conigrave as story teller. I'm very aware of that. This new production at Above The Stag will no doubt have a new take on it. It will innovate it and make a stamp on the story that is particular to its time and place. That's extremely satisfying and exciting to know it's happening. I'm sure there'll also be a response that's about love: that's what people take away from it. It's about an undying love.