Review: Holding The Man ~ theatre notes

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Review: Holding The Man

Holding The Man, adapted by Tommy Murphy from the book by Timothy Conigrave, directed by David Berthold. Set design by Brian Thomson, costumes by Micka Agosta, lighting design by Stephen Hawker, composition and sound design by Basil Hogios. With Jeanette Cronin, Nicholas Eadie, Guy Edmonds, Eve Morey, Brett Stiller and Matt Zeremes. Melbourne Theatre Company in association with Griffin Theatre, Merlyn Theatre, CUB Malthouse. Bookings: 1300 723 038

There are few more isolating experiences than sitting unmoved in an auditorium that echoes with muffled sobs. Critics are supposed to be carved of flint, so perhaps it isn’t surprising that I sat through Holding the Man with scarcely a flicker of emotion. But given the passionate responses this play has elicited, such indifference feels slightly disturbing. I didn't especially dislike it. I just didn't feel anything much at all.

I don’t doubt for a moment the reality of the feelings prompted by this show, nor the sincerity of those who made it. And it's clearly struck a chord in a wide audience: this MTC season is this production's sixth, after four hugely successful seasons in Sydney and another in Brisbane. Review after review, tribute after tribute, lauds its profound emotional impact. So what am I missing?

As theatre, Holding The Man seeks to touch a particular constituency – by which I don't mean the gay community, but a certain kind of theatrical audience. As I am clearly not within this constituency, I can't but feel that these impassioned responses are less to the play itself than to its subject matter, and are validated by a sense of its authenticity. Holding The Man carries the potency of witness reports: this is real, this happened to real people.

It’s a fine line – this assertion is also part of the emotional engine behind one of the most powerful theatre pieces I’ve seen, Ariane Mnouchkine’s Le Dernier Caravans√©rail – but too often work underpinned by these notions of authenticity can become a kind of emotional pornography. I’m not one who believes in art for art’s sake, but in things artistic I agree with Oscar Wilde’s observation that “in matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity, is the vital thing.”

Tommy Murphy's play is adapted from Timothy Conigrave's memoir of the same name, a much-loved text that for many Australian gays articulated their experiences of the early days of AIDS. Published after Conigrave's death, it tells the story of his turbulent 15 year relationship with his lover John Caleo, from their first meeting in high school, to Caleo's death in the early '90s. As Nick Enright said in a short piece he wrote on the book, "it documents some aspects of life in our community in two particular periods of self-definition (seventies liberation and the health crisis of the eighties)". Its adaptation to theatre can't help but be reductive, and director David Berthold is quite frank about what the play was to be: "We wanted the love story".

So Holding the Man recounts, through a series of episodic scenes, the story of the love between Tim (Guy Edmonds) and John (Matt Zeremes). John remained faithful despite Tim’s serial infidelities, which gave him the disease that ultimately killed both of them. Murphy adapts the book as a conventional bio-play, moving chronologically from their first meeting. Aside from Tim and John, all roles are doubled, with the other three actors between them playing more than 40 parts. Edmonds and Zeremes give appealing performances, but they are the only actors who can: the other performers can do little more than bounce around like cartoon characters, providing a kind of animated background to the story.

It’s written for a certain kind of theatricality, which incorporates puppets and physical theatre in a swift-moving, impressionistic narrative. Although it moves very slickly under David Berthold’s efficient direction, it’s the kind of theatre that always calls up for me memories of Theatre in Education shows in high school. Everything is directed towards moving towards the emotional climax, in a dramaturgy that sacrifices depth in favour of surface movement.

Much of the script rests on the dynamic of recognition: there are rather too many in-jokes about Sydney theatre, for instance. Or a snatch of Supertramp here, a reference to Inflation there, and voila! it's Melbourne in the '80s. Perhaps if I had read the original book, my imagination might have supplied some of the complexity so signally missing on the stage.

As it is, the play is almost a text-book example of how sentimentality can be used to obscure the very issues it claims to be exploring. I suspect this is another reason it left me cold. Unlike, say, The Normal Heart, Larry Kramer’s powerful and angry play about the early days of AIDS and its devastating impact on the gay community in New York, there is no sense that its implications go beyond the merely personal.

Like Tommy Murphy, Kramer employs a narrative that is clearly autobiographical, of a love story between two gay men (one of whom is a writer and who, presumably, ends up writing the play we are seeing). And it is written with a directness, anger and love that pulls no punches: it's an emotionally gruelling play. But Kramer also creates a critique of institutional bigotry and indifference which remains as pertinent now – in the new dimensions of the AIDS crisis in Africa, for example, which chiefly impacts on women and children – as it was back in the 1980s, when the main victims of HIV were gay men.

There is no such possible connection in Holding the Man, where complexities are largely airbrushed out in favour of an idealised romance that does everything but stick love hearts around the stage. For all its frankness about things of the body - the details of sex as much as illness - it has an air of Disney about it, a feeling that all complexities, paradox, difficulty and pain are absorbed into a consoling emotional orgasm.

On the other hand, no artwork need be more than it is. And there's nothing essentially wrong with tragic love stories with huge emotional climaxes: they are, after all, the very fabric of classical opera and epic poetry. Whatever the reason, the earth just didn't move for me.

Picture: Matt Zeremes and Guy Edmonds in Holding The Man.


sydney arts journo said...

I couldn't agree more Alison. I never reviewed it for the blog... but you have definately captured my response to it.

(Maybe that's why I never uploaded a post about it.)

JulianIsAbout said...

This is a fascinating analysis. I don’t know the book, but saw the show on Saturday night with my wife and her mother. We had a very full response to what we saw, one of those rare occasions when theatre was able to stir something quite deep and complex.

The first act seemed to me to be mostly plot, but nonetheless a highly entertaining trip though many years. I enjoyed the comedy and especially its quick character sketches, cartoony. It strikes me that when we remember our past, we often remember it in this way – detached moments, distilled types, the speed of time passing. The second part slowed down with the scenes becoming longer and the secondary characters fuller. The scene in which Tim tells his parents he was HIV was brilliant, for example. I thought this rhythm/style was deliberate and intelligent.

I also liked the inventiveness of the staging. It was interesting that you mention Theatre-in Education style performance. I know what you mean, and the roughness of this worried me momentarily. But sitting there I noted that it was used mostly when the story was in the 70s and 80s and disappeared when the story reached into the 90s, not long after the second part started. Wasn’t style somehow following period? I was engaged by this idea quite quickly, particularly since it was being implemented with relish and joy. There’s a commentary on theatre somewhere in there.

To me, the show steered almost fastidiously clear of sentimentality. We all commented on this. I think it was this that allowed the audience to have the huge emotional response it clearly had. Isn’t it interesting that you thought its sentimentality was what left you cold, while for us it was its very unsentimentality that gave us the opportunity to be truly moved?

I think it’s unfair to ask the story to provide conduits into things such as the AIDS crisis in Africa, in a way that Kramer’s plays might. Kramer was writing in a different time. Maybe if the book was being adapted in the first part of the 90s it might have been more overtly political, reflecting those different times again. But it wasn’t. I read recently - maybe it was in the program - that one of the big political problems for AIDS in Australia now is its relative invisibility. Doesn’t the fact of putting AIDS onto the stage now deal with this issue? Maybe that’s its socio-political impact. In any case, it didn’t bother me. There was quite enough to be going on with.

It was irrelevant to us that this happened to real people. And it was irrelevant that it was an adaptation of a book we didn’t know. We weren’t especially interested in the subject matter. It was simply one of our few truly great nights in the theatre. Complex, of life, of love.


Alison Croggon said...

Hi Julian - many thanks for your meditation here. One thing I was particularly anxious not to do in this review (given my own response) was to belittle the responses of others, which I know have been genuine and heartfelt. As I said, I don't doubt the impact it's had - it just simply didn't register in that way at all for me, and these are some speculations I've made as to why that might be so (I do conclude, after all, that there is nothing that says it has to be political in the way that Kramer is).

It's kind of intriguing, all the same, to try to map sensibility. I guess this is the point where we all wander off and ponder the mystery of human difference...!

Anonymous said...

I think there is something in all of this... I don't know what, but something. I had, I think, pretty much exactly the same reaction as Alison to Holding the Man... but at the end I saw people (many of whom I know to be cynical and cool, cool, cool) almost bent double with sobs, springing to their feet with standing ovations, drenched in tears. I was embarrassed because I thought I'd missed something - I was avoiding eye contact with people after it, because I suspected that something amazing had happened in the theatre that had somehow passed me by. The reaction those people had to this play was the reaction I had to Love Song - I felt my life changing as I watched Love Song, I could talk about that play for ever... but I'm sure Love Song left others completely unmoved. As I say, I think there's something in this, but I don't know what. Surely when a play can move just one person the way Holding the Man has moved many, many, many people, then it's a really valuable thing. But BEFORE I saw how it had moved people, I found it dull, amateurish, I couldn't believe it had found its way to a professional production. And I hate that I feel that way!!!!


Adam Cass

Anonymous said...

i haven't seen the piece yet, but am a bit fascinated by these thoughts.

is something that moves people inherently valuable, as Adam posits? or can an 'emotional orgasm' (occuring in full waterwork spurt as they seem to have been for many) be as meaningless as a casual fuck?

is emotional 'movement' necessarily a sign of growth, learning, healing, or any kind of change? or can the earth move many times without us moving with it (i suppose i mean in a political, or at least social, sense)?

discuss in 200 words or less.

Anonymous said...

that last anonymous was ben.

JulianIsAbout said...

I'm enjoying this. My first time at this blog.

In response to Ben. I think it’s clear, in this case at least though not in all, that the emotional response is related to shifts in outlook, to change. The book is famous for eliciting a deep emotional response and is also claimed by many to be ‘a book that change my life’. I’ve heard many people talk of it in this way. The play seems to have had much the same impact, on many.

Adam’s post is fascinating. I disagree, though, that the show is in some way ‘amateurish’. It’s clearly conceived to be a raw production, one showing all its joins, in a way that is playfully metatheatrical, quite conscious of, and even relishing, its own roughness. In the opening moment, the lead actor walks on, out of character, and says “Let’s start” or “Let’s begin”. It’s a casual beginning, and throughout the production punctures its own illusions.

But Adam’s post leads me to wonder if this roughness is the very thing that creeps up from behind and helps stir the raw emotional outpouring that many have experienced. I read the book for the first time yesterday, trying to get past this puzzle, and noted that it’s very roughly written. It’s no literary masterpiece, but over the last section it got under my skin (like the play) and I once again found myself in a raw experience of grief and contemplating what love meant to me. Maybe the creators of the theatrical Holding the Man have attempted, and largely succeeded, to replicate this relationship between the rough and the raw.

Leonard Cohen: “Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack, a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in.”


Dot Casaubon said...

For what it's worth, Adam, Alison et al, I had an almost identical response. I couldn't fathom why such a production would be programmed, with the female characters reduced to clownish archetypes, the clumsy use of design, the was so pleased with itself. And ultimately so bloody daggy.

But there's nothing more likely to make you realise how disparate an audience can be than turning to your friend, about to say, 'Is that the most amateurish piece of theatre we've seen in years?' and be greeted with a tear-stained cheek.

We agreed to disagree.

But only after some rather gratuitous recriminatory accusations in the bar. !!

Alison Croggon said...

Well, it's prompting a fascinating discussion, and that is certainly valuable. Thanks all for your thoughts -

That's an interesting point about rawness, Julian. (And makes me think of what Randall Jarrell said of Christina Stead's novel, The Man Who Loved Children - "a masterpiece is a book that has something wrong with it".) But, to be perverse here, I didn't think the production was rough or raw at all - if anything, I thought the execution slick and professional and rather clean. And the meta-theatrical thing was, on its own terms, well done (although I much prefer the kind of meta-theatrical stuff we see in other shows in Melbourne).

I'm still really baffled, truth be told, by what moved people. I like to think (well, don't we all) that I'm not entirely insensitive - and I'm a bit of a sucker for "love is stronger than death" kind of thing - I can't read The Song of Songs without weeping. Yet for me, this show kind of cheerily pattered along the surface of things like love and grief and death (even in its sad bits) and never punctured the skin to whatever beats inside. It all seemed somehow awfully nice.

I'm actually wondering at the moment how much the issue of beauty plays in this - the idea of beauty is something I've played with for quite a while, attempting to articulate what I mean, and it's a bit long to tease out here - suffice to say that by "beauty" I don't mean idealised perfection. But that quality matters very much to me, and might be the thing I miss here, and the reason why I remained untouched. I'm not sure...

Mike Howard said...

Great discussion here.

I had a mixed response to the play too. My partner and I went last week, we enjoyed it for the most part, a few tears here and there. I found the core of the story (tim & john) quite wonderful, believable and engrossing. Couldn't fault that. Also, many of the characterisations played by the other actors were inventive and well-realised. The thing I (and my partner) found myself resisting throughout the entire production were the female characters, mostly the ones played by Jeanette Cronin. It seemed that everything she did was over the top and generally un-funny. That for me was the "theatre in education" and "amateurish". I'm surprised that has gotten past 6 seasons, tells you a lot about Sydney audiences. I wonder if this was a directorial decision or a decision on the actors behalf, was this part of the script? If someone has it or has read it, i'd like to know... Because it was such an ensemble piece it'd be hard for something like this not to get in the way of the overall story. I have read a few reviews of this show and they all have said this in one way or another, so I'm sure I'm not the only one feeling like this. I hate to single out one actor but it was like she was in a totally different play, it really bugged me.

Having said that, It's obvious that the play is striking a nerve amongst the theatre-going community, in one way or another, and that has to be a good thing. I would love to see a different interpretation of this play down the track, one where the the peripheral characters to Tim and John are played for real and aren't as broad as this show.

Mike Howard

Christine B said...

Hi folks,

I saw the show twice in sydney and also felt unmoved by it. Although I did enjoy some of the theatrical aspects of its staging, especially the use of puppets and the breathing sounds. I also liked some of its comedy.

I wondered whether the emotional distance I felt from the characters' very painful situation was to do with the way the two lead guys were portrayed. Especially the main one, who seemed quite brusque and pragmatic (defensive?) in his own responses. But I wasn't really moved by the other one either.

I thought this was odd at the time - that such a sad story could fail to move me - but was partly glad that this holding back from the emotions prevented the play from wallowing in sentimentality (the material has enormous potential for this.)But I think I was just trying to like it more than I did and would have liked to feel more moved by this terrible story.

Feeling genuinely moved is one experience I most like about going to the theatre.

Leonie Tillman said...

For what it's worth, I did have a good bawl at the end of this play. I'll admit, I am a Sydneysider and quite predisposed to a good cry (after having lost the need to shy away from showing the world my tears). Nevertheless, I don't think the presence or absence of tears is any guide by which to judge a piece. What I do find interesting is the issue of sentimentality. It is true that the style of the production has done much to avoid it, but the story alone is enough to generate the flap everyone in Sydney has got themselves into.

What does it say about the human condition? We are fickle, yet ultimately loving? That death is sad? That disease is frightening? I guess, I would answer yes to all these things but I probably want more from my art than just a good cry and be justified in my thoughts.

To use a comparison, I saw Toby Schmitz's This is how it goes written by Neil LaBute (in Sydney). A similar style in that it used techniques of alienation, but used them for the reason of making a presentation on racism. It was not simply a tool used as a diversion of sentimentality and a diversion of representation.

Maybe that's what's upsetting us. It's reminding us of a play of a previous era with contemporary techniques thrown in for good measure. Maybe we want more psychological confrontation.


Andrew said...

Excellent discussion here. I thoroughly enjoyed opening night, but also walked out straight into a stern dissertation by an aquaintance of the play's shortcomings at the bar. He was an actor talking to a producer who agreed so I have to defer to them somewhat, being a mug punter myself.

Frankly though, having seen quite a bit of the MTC program over the last two years I was somewhat relieved to simply enjoy a production that didn't try and bite off more than it could chew or pretend to be anything more than it was (Don Juan in soho, glass soldier - i'm looking at you). Maybe it was this aspect of being a funny, emotional and yet easily accessible narrative that made it such a hit over multiple seasons.

Sure the script is daggy and lacking in subtext or wider social comment, but it has a cleverness to it's snappy interactions and witty call-backs (at least in the first half) with a natural unaffected flow. The acting was excellent and I thought the "down to earth" stage craft a good match for the narrative.

Undemanding - yes, but in the end I was a crier too...

Anonymous said...

I went to opening night too and had an outstanding experience. Don’t know the book, but really loved the production, and was challenged by it. I guess you expect opening night crowds to be among the more constrained, but the audience gave it 4 or 5 big curtain calls and a standing ovation from I guess two-thirds or three-quarters of the theatre (hard to tell). I didn’t stand, although I clapped loudly! (Call me shy – I’ve never stood for anything!) I go to most MTC opening nights, and others besides (I’m a media date) and I can’t remember the last time I saw that. So something was going on.

Susan R

par3182 said...

Isn't the answer to this quandry more likely to be found in the audience member than the play?

The events in the play resonated strongly with me as I am of the same era as the main characters, went to an all boys school, went to drama school, lived through the late 80s/early 90s aids devastation (which seems many lifetimes ago now...and in a way, is) so I guess I was predisposed to be moved.

But the fact that my ex died of cancer less than a year ago is what made me the sobbing mess I was at the end. No matter how it was staged or performed would have changed that fact.

I'm still reeling days later

Anonymous said...

I saw a matinee production of HTM this week (Wed 26/4) - expecting to be bowled over having heard about its reception in Sydney, and also having been captivated by the book (admittedly 10+ years ago). My response to the play was similar to Alison's, though mixed with disappointment that the book had not been well served by this production. I've re-read the book in the past few days and see it slightly differently again now. On a second read it was still for me an extraordinarily powerful story, simply told, of love and gay men's coming of age in the early days of HIV/AIDS. I now think the content of the play is a fair reflection of the book - I didn't think that just after seeing the play. Its selection of material is perhaps not what I'd have wanted - I think it unfortunate that all the supporting characters have been reduced to caricature, particularly the parents - but with only a few exceptions, I can recognise the script in the book. Where the play lost me is more in the staging. Take the circle jerk scene - played for shock value it seemed to me in the play, but described in matter of fact terms in the book. The explicit sexual talk - relatively unremarkable in context throughout much of the book - seemed to be highlighted for dramatic impact. I would have preferred staging which allowed the book to speak more for itself -I wouldn't have thought it needed too many theatrical tricks to make it live.

Having said all that, it occurs to me Tim Conigrave might well have approved of the staging of this production. A jolting and confronting show that got people talking would have been his idea of successful theatre. And judging from the discussion on this site, who could see it any other way?

Gary J

MelbLitChick said...

I saw the production last night. I admired it enormously. I haven’t read the book, or lost anyone close, so I came to it relatively ‘fresh’ - which seems important to point out in the context of this discussion. I thought it was a shrewd and well-judged mix of the comic and the tragic, if I can put it that simply, and certainly left me quite deeply affected and contemplative. I was grateful that it avoided sentimentality as much as it did, yet remained sensitive. I was in a big packed audience which was clearly loving it too – lots of curtain calls and cheering at the end and lots standing.

The production seemed to me to be following a line though the story that gathered people and events around the idea of theatre/presentation. It meant there were a few particular theatre references I didn't get, but fair enough. Loved the puppet idea. That got to me. And in some ways it could only have existed in a production like this. I imagine some kind of decision was necessary to avoid that particular kind of blandness that can sometimes accompany novel adaptations that attempt to be somehow neutral. A play is a different beast. I appreciated the angle.

There didn’t seem to me to be any deliberate playing for ‘shock value’ in the staging. At least last night. In that circle jerk scene that Gary writes about, the actors could hardly get a word out there was so much laughter. There was no sense of anything being done in order to shock. Maybe it was the Wednesday matinee crowd that turned it into something ‘shocking’?

Anyway. I had a terrific time. And it did, as they say, 'speak to me’.

(Great, thoughtful comments on here, btw...)