Perhaps the main goal of PJ’s and my recent trip to England was to see a few shows. The last time we were there most of the shows we saw were total crap, so we really wanted this trip’s theater to be better. We ended up seeing four shows. Almost as soon as we arrived, we took the Tube to the Leicester Square tickets booth and bought tickets for our first two nights in London.

We knew we wanted to see Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, but it wasn’t playing on Monday night (our first night in London) so we bought tickets to another show, Holding the Man. PJ had read about it beforehand and knew that it was also an Australian “gay play,” which was enough for us. We bought tickets for Priscilla for Tuesday night, so we figured the theme of our visit would be gay Australian theater!

We had no idea what we were getting ourselves into. Holding the Man is much more than just a gay Australian play. It is an amazingly affecting theatrical experience. Unfortunately, the West End production has now closed, but the play itself is so good that I would recommend any production of this play.

Holding the Man is based on the memoir of Timothy Conigrave, an Australian writer, actor, and activist. Conigrave’s memoir follows his 15-year relationship with John Caleo. The two men met while still in high school, a Catholic boys school. Caleo was the captain of the school’s football team. The play’s early scenes detail their courtship and eventual coming out to their parents. When Conigrave goes off to college and wants to experiment with other men, the couple briefly breaks up. The second half of the play focuses on the latter years of the mens’ relationship and takes place in the AIDS era. Both men eventually dies of AIDS-related illnesses.

What makes this play immediately interesting is the experimental nature of its staging. It uses doubling of actors to play multiple parts, and the actors sometimes merely change wigs while on stage to indicate a change in character. The sets are deceptively simple. Again, almost each piece is used in multiple ways over the course of the production. I had no idea where the plot was going, since I knew nothing about these men or the memoir before seeing it, but the staging and sets immediately captivated me. It was kind of like watching a really low-budget college production (in a good way). I really enjoy this kind of making-do-with-whatever-is-at-hand feeling, so I loved this production almost immediately.

And then the plot of the play got increasingly more interesting as well. The initial coming out stuff was sweet, but the second half of the play is where it really gets heavy. Conigrave, played by Guy Edmonds, doesn’t want to be in a monogamous relationship any more. When Caleo, played by Matt Zeremes, objects, the two end up breaking up. Although Conigrave relatively quickly realizes that he loves Caleo and wants them to be together, he never quite lives up to Caleo’s expectations of a monogamous relationship.

Both actors are great in these roles. Edmonds makes us really care about Conigrave, and as a result we don’t end up judging him for his choices. We see his humanity and his heart (as well as his horniness). Zeremes is also excellent as Caleo, who is the “butch” one in the relationship, the one who has more difficulty in coming out, and who expects more of the relationship once he does.

Here’s a little taste of the play that I found on YouTube. It’s from the original Australian production (same actors, etc. as on the West End) and includes an interview with the stars:

Jane Turner is also a stand out in this production. She plays several roles, may of which are hilarious. But what’s more interesting is that she actually knew Caleo and Conigrave; she knew them when they were all in school. Given the emotional power of the play, I found it astounding that she has this personal connection to these characters. It must have been emotionally grueling for her to play this part, to be reminded every night of the tragedy of AIDS in such a personal way. I think that makes her comic performance all the more interesting.

I can’t say enough about how powerful this production was. PJ and I were both crying by the end. It is an amazing play. Unfortunately, my university library doesn’t have a copy of the memoir or the play, and only one university in Ohio does. I’ll have to track down a copy one way or another. I’d really like to read both texts.

I’ll write about the other plays we saw separately, but I can say that this first play was a great start to our theater-going in London!