Review: Holding the Man – La Boite Theatre at the Roundhouse

Main Image: Jerome Meyer and Alec Snow. All images by Al Caeiro

I confess to loving a good play title; it can occupy a fruitful seminar for ages – that’s the recovering academic in me talking.

I’m also very fond of theatricalism in design and execution – the challenge and frisson created when it bumps up against realism in a production and, as it pulls naturalistic acting into its embrace, gets to be over the top and obvious, understated and true. Sometimes you can be wrong-footed but the dance is always enjoyable. And so, on opening night of La Boite’s latest Season 2013 offering Holding the Man by Tommy Murphy and directed by David Berthold, I found a lot to like.

Mr Murphy’s much-admired play has a new production by Mr Berthold who has directed it previously to great acclaim: at Griffin Theatre and the Opera House in Sydney (2006) and subsequently in Melbourne, the Brisbane Powerhouse and in London (2010). This was my first time. The play has been adapted from the late Timothy Conigrave‘s biography of the same name. It is also unknown to me though it’s gone to the top of the must-read list. I want to hear more of the singular voice of Conigrave who, in the play at least, is not the most likeable of characters but certainly a most compelling, and isn’t that the way with so many of the best roles going?

Alec Snow_Holding the Man_Image by Al Caeiro
Alec Snow

Alec Snow, making his professional debut at La Boite, is cast as the man who is held by John Caleo (Jerome Meyer) the light to his dark, the chalk to his cheese, the athlete to his artist. Mr Meyer is also making his first professional appearance in this production. And here’s where the play’s title is food for thought. ‘Holding the man’ is a term taken from AFL football – it defines a transgression that incurs a penalty. Conigrave the actor and Caleo the footballer (and Essendon fan) were lovers. The many personal and societal transgressions that accompany the lives of the protagonists from childhood through adulthood provide the narrative with its subject matter and tension.

With this production David Berthold continues his exploration of the relationship between audience and actors in the big room at the Roundhouse theatre; I’ve heard him speak on several occasions about the challenge which he clearly relishes. Holding the Man uses the three-sided configuration with ‘Egypt’ (the far-away wall) as the backing. The space isn’t an easy one for designers or actors; on opening night audibility and clarity were problematical from time to time especially amongst some of the less experienced actors in the company. However, the world created for the play is impeccably designed and wrought.

Designed by Brian Thomson and lit by David Walters the acting space is open and flexible with a design that engages with theatricality – the hallmark of this production

Designed by Brian Thomson and lit by David Walters, the acting space is open and flexible with a design that engages with theatricality – the hallmark of this production. Dressing-room globes surround huge mirrors stuck with photos and notes – opening night good-luck wishes, cuttings, the ephemera of life. The mirrors themselves reflect and refract the role-playing that so often defined Caleo and Conigrave’s partnership as gay men from schoolboy through student days, professional lives, and then as HIV-AIDS patients. John died in 1992 and Timothy in 1994. It’s a love story as you have probably guessed. The mirror images can distort as well. They are there, perhaps, to remind that we are ‘characters’ and part of the tale …

Holding the Man‘s narrative line is episodic; we see Timothy and John grow as individuals and as a couple across the arc of their lives from boy to manhood. Their story is fleshed out in events – in turn hilarious and sombre – played by the members of the ensemble: Eugene GilfedderHelen Howard, with Jai Higgs and Lauren Jackson two actors also making impressive debuts for La Boite in the production.

Alec Snow and Eugene Gilfedder_Holding the Man_Image by Al Caeiro-1
Alec Snow and Eugene Gilfedder

With an assemblage of wigs and costume, voice-over and puppets as well as actorly transformation, the company conjures up a parade of 40 or so characters. Costumes and puppets by Micka Agosta are just terrific as are the wigs by Elisa Ponton and Lynne Swain. And ‘Neil Armstrong’ makes a brief appearance at the beginning of the play courtesy of a sweet marionette by David Morton (Dead Puppet Society). Side-note: the backstage action during character changeover would be something to see! Sound design and composition by Basil Hogios completes the design team’s work.

Act 1 of Holding the Man is far more playful, comic and fast-moving than Act 2 when the sombre mood of adulthood and the effect of the HIV-AIDS plague descend. A chill settles on the warmth and fun, the quips and confidence of John and Timothy’s days in the sun. It’s also more challenging to perform. Mr Snow and Mr Meyer are gifted actors with two plum roles and I have no doubt will rise even further to the challenges as the season progresses. On opening night some tentativeness at times meant that moments were truncated and less emphatic than they needed to be.

Helen Howard and Eugene Gilfedder are superb in their various roles which require lighting fast transformation and rich, bold, heartfelt characterisation

Helen Howard and Eugene Gilfedder are superb in their various roles which require lighting fast transformation and rich, bold, heartfelt characterisation. Their experience tells as they play across a wide range of types and individuals always finely-observed. It’s something of a masterclass for acting students. There’s no wrong-footing in their work.

Helen Howard
Helen Howard

I was warned that I would probably need tissues for this play. In fact, it left me dry-eyed but that doesn’t mean indifferent. It was a small moment for some, perhaps, but I remain haunted as I write this two days on by Eugene Gilfedder’s Bob Caleo as he scurried around the bed of his just-dead son clearing away possessions into a large black garbage bag. There’s a furiously controlled, manic energy about him and, if it appears unfeeling to some, then so be it. It happens also to be a beautifully realised, achingly true moment. I held my breath in recognition.

On the lighter side, I’ve been wondering whether Ms Howard’s ‘NIDA Director’ was a tribute to John Clarke of fabled memory *insert smiling face emoticon here*  Whether or not, he was delightful as was her needy acting student. Oh yes …

See Holding the Man if you love good story-telling and good theatre – that’s all of you, right? The season plays until 16 March. Details on the website.