‘We are lucky to be alive when we are’: a devastating gay love story returns to the stage

In 2006 Eamon Flack auditioned to play Timothy Conigrave in the premiere season of Holding the Man at Sydney’s Griffin Theatre Company.

To prepare he bought a copy of the book from which it was adapted: Conigrave’s devastating 1995 memoir about his 16-year relationship with John Caleo, which started when both were in high school in Melbourne and ended when Caleo died of an Aids-related illness in 1992. Conigrave would die just two and a half years later. “I read most of it on a plane to Perth and finished it sitting in a Ford Laser in a car park in Leederville,” Flack says.

He didn’t land the role. Instead Flack left his acting ambitions behind and started working as literary manager at Belvoir St Theatre, where he is now artistic director.

“In hindsight, I totally understand why I didn’t get cast in it,” he says. “Tim’s boldness, his compulsion to discover and explore his life, was quite remarkable. He gave himself freedoms that I never gave myself.

“Reading the book, I started weeping really early on because here were two teenagers finding in themselves and in their world the space to love in a way that I had not.”

As Flack started his career at Belvoir, the stage adaptation earned the playwright Tommy Murphy the New South Wales premier’s literary and Australian Writers’ Guild award for best play, and the Philip Parsons young playwrights award.

Since its premiere season, it has been staged across Australia and internationally, including London’s West End, San Francisco, Auckland and Florence. And next month Flack directs a new production of Holding the Man at Belvoir, with his partner, Tom Conroy, cast in the lead role as Tim.

It’s now almost 30 years since Conigrave died from Aids-related illness; and close to 18 years since the play’s debut. A film version, also adapted by Murphy and starring Ryan Corr and Craig Stott, came out in 2015, the same year a documentary about Tim and John’s relationship premiered at Adelaide film festival. As for the play itself: “A work as essential as this probably should have been revisited [by now],” Flack says.

I ask Flack and Conroy what it’s like to work together as a couple on a queer love story like this. They pause for a while, looking at one another.

“I don’t really know,” Flack says. “We’ve never talked about it.” He laughs awkwardly. “Yesterday was Valentine’s Day – that made it funny.”

Conroy, Murphy and Flack. Photograph: Jessica Hromas/The Guardian

It’s not the first time the couple have worked together: Conroy featured in The Master and Margarita, directed by Flack, in November; in Flack’s adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts in 2017; and in Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and her Children in 2015.

“I feel like [our relationship] doesn’t really come into play,” Flack says.

Conroy says: “It’s good in that I feel very comfortable. And there’s endless amounts of trust, but that’s partly just because I trust Eamon as a director. [Our relationship is] obviously part of it, but not in a huge way.”

For The Master and Margarita, Conroy was a kind of “dramaturgical sounding board” for Flack, as they worked on the script at home after hours. For Holding the Man, the couple leave the play in the theatre at the end of each day. “We go home and watch For All Mankind on television,” Flack says.

There’s been renewed interest from storytellers in the HIV/Aids crisis. It was explored in Rebecca Makkai’s bestselling 2018 novel The Great Believers (since optioned by Amy Poehler), the acclaimed UK series It’s a Sin in 2021, and, last year, the US screen adaptation of Thomas Mallon’s Fellow Travelers, and In Our Blood on ABC TV (It’s a Sin creator Russell T Davies has described John’s death in the Holding the Man movie as “the finest death scene” he has seen on screen).

Conroy first read Holding the Man when he was 16 and performing in a community theatre production of Jonathan Harvey’s 90s queer teen romance Beautiful Thing.

“[Holding the Man] was such an important story for me growing up,” Conroy says. “I was still coming to terms with being gay and it just completely devastated me.”

The book follows Tim and John through the giddy highs of first love. There’s a separation, a rekindling and, later, Conigrave’s unflinching portrayal of John’s illness. In Conroy’s words, it’s a kind of Romeo and Juliet story.

‘It’s primarily a love story’: Tim Conigrave and John Caleo in a photo released by Madman Entertainment for the documentary Remembering the Man

“They had such a unique experience of falling in love at the age of 15, these two young boys, and that love carried them right through to their deaths,” he says.

Conroy recalls sobbing through the final 50 pages, devastated not just by the end of Tim and John’s relationship, but by the threat of Aids. “There was a part of me that was definitely like, ‘Oh, I’m going to die of Aids. If I am gay, this is going to happen to me as well.’ And that was very scary.”

Returning to the book 20 years later, he says, “has made me think about my adolescence and how much the shame and fear around being gay was to do with what [a queer life would be like],” he says. “One of the interesting things about the book is that it’s [primarily] a love story between two boys, and one of the obstacles is this illness that they get, rather than it being a story about how scary Aids is.”

In the lead-up to rehearsals, Conroy talked with friends about what their lives would have been like if they had come of age during the 90s.

“We have this horrific hypothetical that we sometimes find ourselves falling into of, ‘What would have happened to our friendship group if we’d been [adults] then, and which of us would have died?’” he says. “It’s such a horrible, impossible thing to think, but we all are really aware of how lucky we are to be alive when we are.”

Ryan Corr as Conigrave and Craig Stott as Caleo in the 2015 film Holding the Man. Photograph: Ben King/Goalpost Pictures/NFSAA

Murphy also recalls the fear of Aids being drilled into young queer people when he was growing up. A lot has changed since then.

Last year the International Aids Society declared that inner Sydney – where the play is being staged – may be the first place in the world to eliminate Aids as a public health threat, with new HIV acquisitions reduced by 88% thanks partly to what Murphy refers to as “a little blue pill”, or PrEP.

“That said though, there’s this lingering stigma that is so cruel and so unnecessary today,” he says. “That fear is hard to shake. For a long time, we were told to be scared because that would keep us safe, and every sexual act had a feel of ‘this one could be risky’. There’s no longer a reason for us to feel that fear, and yet still, today, people living with HIV so unnecessarily will have to combat that stigma.”

Murphy hopes that staging the play in 2024 will remind people that “prejudice is a recurring thing” and prompt thought about the queer people who are “on today’s frontline”.

“We’re at a time where there is a rise in fear about queer influence in young lives. And a big part of the drama of Holding the Man is about the disapproval over young queer love. I feel like that’s the reason to tell the story now.”


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