Exclusive Interview: playwright Tommy Murphy on the legacy of queer Australian classic Holding The Man

Tim Conigrave’s 1995 memoir, Holding The Man, inhabits a special place in the gay Australian psyche. Telling the story of his 15 year relationship with his partner John Caleo, from their meeting in high school to Caleo’s untimely death during the height of the AIDS crisis, the book – published posthumously – has become a queer classic.

To commemorate the 30th anniversary of Conigrave’s passing, Sydney’s Belvoir St Theatre has announced a brand new production of Tommy Murphy’s acclaimed stage adaptation for March 2024, directed by Belvoir Artistic Director Eamon Flack and starring Danny Ball and Tom Conroy. The play premiered at Sydney’s famed incubator of new writing, Griffin Theatre (where Suzie Miller’s recent West End and Broadway smash hit Prima Facie also premiered) in 2006, before moving to the larger Belvoir St Theatre in 2007 and then around the world in productions from London to Los Angeles and beyond. Murphy would then adapt it once more for the 2015 film version.

The Queer Review’s Chad Armstrong spoke with Tom Wright (Artistic Associate at Belvoir) and Tommy Murphy (playwright) about this new production and the enduring legacy of Conigrave’s writing.

Tom Wright, Artistic Associate Belvoir St Theatre. Image courtesy of Belvoir St Theatre.

Chad Armstrong, The Queer Review: Sydney theatre generally “goes gay” in March to coincide with Mardi Gras, but why bring Holding The Man back to the stage now?

Tom Wright: “It’s been a generation since Tommy Murphy’s adaptation premiered in Sydney, and it’s thirty years since Tim Conigrave died. We really feel in our community we need to keep connections alive between the generations. Holding The Man is a celebration of identity and love. It’s a tragedy too, and for those of us who lived through those times to share with those who have come along since is a beautiful thing. We just feel the time is right.”

Danny Ball in Loaded. Photo by: Tamarah Scott. Courtesy of Malthouse Theatre.

Danny Ball is a real rising star on our stages and his play The Italians was a hilarious hit as part of Belvoir’s 25a programme. Was it an easy casting decision to put him in Holding The Man?

TW: “Danny is charismatic and has great stage presence. He was instantly the right choice for the role of John Caleo, particularly after his performance in the stage adaptation of Christos Tsiolkas’ Loaded in Melbourne. Easy? it was a no-brainer!”

Playwright Tommy Murphy. Image courtesy of Belvoir St Theatre.

Tommy, cast your mind back to the days of first adapting Holding The Man. What was it about the book that made you want to translate it to the stage?

Tommy Murphy: “I knew it could be theatre. David Berthold, the Artistic Director of Griffin, knew that too. Tim Conigrave was an actor and playwright, and his memoir is in many ways theatrical. He described it himself in letters I’ve read – a fax actually – as being made up of ‘scenes’. And, there are scenes in the book set on Sydney stages, including Griffin and Belvoir.”

What was that process like?

TM: “We did it fast. We’d just finished a successful run of my play Strangers in Between. Actually that one’s coming back too, which is nice. They are rehearsing it now for a new production in London. But yeah, Holding the Man was written in a very impulsive way. The deadline was opening night – and I love that. It gave us a lot of impetus and probably some adrenaline too. That said, I know I was sheltered from fully understanding the memoirs’ reputation. This was on the eve of Facebook. I didn’t really comprehend just how loved this book was yet. That helped. We didn’t hold back. We were respectful but never slavish to the original.”

Tom Conroy and Danny Ball. Image courtesy of Belvoir St Theatre.

Holding The Man is part of the Australian theatre canon now. What has that been like for you, watching this one show have such a long life?

TM: “It’s heaven. It is such a privilege to still travel around the world and see new versions of the play. I also receive regular messages from people who have found the play or the film. I feel especially privileged to have an ongoing friendship with Tim’s family and friends.

“I never met Tim, but I view him as a mentor. I had many years to obsess over research and ways of telling this story. That’s not only because of the many productions of the play but the fact that I pursued the film for eight years. Making the film and helping to promote it was a new chapter of the story for me. I thought it was all done but the story of Tim and John seems to always be with me. I am very grateful and it has certainly impacted me as a writer. Tim taught me that your goal as a writer is to tell the truth. He’s the greatest there is at that.“

This will be the second staging at Belvoir (17 years apart by the time it hits the stage) – what’s different?

TM: “It is a new context. I take a blue pill every morning that protects me from HIV. That is extraordinary. That is lifesaving. There’s rightly a new sexual liberation that’s emerged over the last decade. I’d also say that along with that is a sad lingering prejudice. This all frames Holding the Man in a very new way. Why should someone living today with HIV bear any suspicion or stigma? It’s ludicrous and cruel in the age of undetectable viral loads and all the knowledge we should have. I appreciate that also lingering is the vigilance that was programmed into some of us at a very young age. Sex no longer means death or fear, at least not in privileged places like Australia. We need to shake that stigma. That’s why we tell stories about the heroism and community fight that got us here. That’s why we have heroes like Tim and John, and so many others.”

Holding The Man (2015) film trailer

You’re obviously a different writer and person than you were back when you first wrote Holding The Man. If you were adapting it today, how would it be different?

TM: “So, of course, over the years I’ve taken the opportunity to hone the play. How could I resist? There are always little things that could be clearer or more impactful or swifter but then you get to a point where you know you must not tamper anymore. I was much younger when I was writing it. I was closer to the adolescent chapter of the story. I knew how to write innocence with insight then. That’s long gone. I also knew about young love and its clumsiness. I think that’s something that’s very authentic in the play and should be preserved. So the rewrites are all done now.”

As the playwright, what’s your involvement in a new staging like this?

TM: “I’ll hang around, so long as I am useful. There are things I know work very well and other things that can be missteps with this play. I say that just because I’ve seen it so many times. But I am keener than anyone to see something innovative. I am delighted that we have this team at Belvoir led by director Eamon Flack. He will bring his own beautiful brand of inventiveness. Eamon’s work includes some of the most remarkable works I have seen on stage recently. So yeah, I’m excited to see what the team does to interpret Holding the Man.”

Director & Belvoir Artistic Director Eamon Flack.

What’s next for you?

TM: “I am working on a new play for Belvoir and some screen projects. They’re all pretty queer in their own way.”

In general, what’s your favourite piece of LGBTQ+ culture or a person who identifies as LGBTQ+; someone or something that’s had an impact on you?

TM: “Well, of course Tim Conigrave for the reasons above. Now I am looking to today’s twenty-somethings and younger. That generation is doing a great job at shifting our ways of seeing. I’m eager to see more of the art they’ll create. I hope it is startling.”

More recently, have you encountered anything LGBTQ+ from the last year that’s stood out to you?

TM: “Five stars to Zoë Coombs-Marr for her exploration of Australia’s queer history: Queerstralia. It was so her; funny and truthful. I learned a lot and, I think, it also confirmed what we all know: it’s a gay old land.”

Holding The Man will play at Belvoir St Theatre, Sydney from March 9th – April 14th, 2024 as part of Belvoir’s 2024 season, with their popular dedicated Queer Nights to be announced. Click here for more information.

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