Holding The Man: a story of Australian love at the Above The Stag Theatre

Holding the Man is the award-winning play by Tommy Murphy based on the memoir by Timothy Conigrave charting his relationship with his partner John from their college days till John’s AIDS-related death. Dave Cross spoke to the two leads Jamie Barnard (Tim) and Ben Boskovic (John) from the brand new production that opens this Tuesday at the Above the Stag Theatre in Vauxhall.

Hi Ben and Jamie can you each describe the story of Holding the Man?

Ben: Holding the Man is the story of Timothy Conigrave and his partner, lover and best friend John Caleo. The play is based on Tim’s memoir of the 15 years of his life with John, from the moment they met at Xavier College in Melbourne in 1976, up until John’s death from AIDS in 1992.

Jamie: Above anything else Holding the Man is a love story between two young men and it takes you through the key moments in their life together.

It’s a story of life and death but are there lighter moments too?

Ben: Absolutely, Tim and John were surrounded by some incredible people, and the play really captures the insight into what their college days would have been like, and as a result, there are some hilarious moments. There are many other scenes too in which we see some touching, heartfelt exchanges and bonds.

Jamie: There are most definitely lighter moments within this play – some very funny moments throughout.

Can you describe your characters and the journeys they take?

Jamie: Tim’s journey is huge in this play. The story spans over a fifteen year period of his life. We see Tim discovering his sexuality, falling in love and dealing with the news he is HIV positive and losing his boyfriend to AIDS.

Ben: I play John Caleo, Tim’s boyfriend and partner in life. John was very active and sporty at school. He was captain of the school football team and also very academic. Tim described John as “shy but popular”, but he’s also incredibly selfless, with a big heart. Despite a turbulent relationship that Tim would sometimes regrettably create for them, John would always come back more loving and caring than ever. There was always just this overwhelming unconditional love John had for Tim, in which nothing or no one could ever destroy.

The play is based on a true story, how does that affect how you approach the characters?

Jamie: The fact that the play is based on a true story is one of, if not, the biggest pull for me to want to take the part. In some ways it is much harder to approach a real person, but at the same time we are gifted with so much information.

Ben: Playing real life characters I think definitely involves an extra exciting and intricate detail in your work in researching them. Tim and John’s love was real; they lived it and felt it, and for me that’s been one of the most important things to remember and invest in as actors portraying these men.

It’s set in Australia in the 70s and 80s, did this make you think about how attitudes have changed in that time? 

Ben: Definitely, especially with learning about the many foundations being laid back then to pave the way for gay rights and equality in Australia, such as the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras and HIV/AIDS support organisations like ACON which Tim worked for. It was really eye-opening to see and imagine, among the HIV/AIDS crisis that was growing, just how much of a fight it was for Tim and John, and to see even now how the country is still struggling for gay marriage equality.

Jamie: This for me was a big part of the initial research for the play. A lot has happened over the last 40-50 years. Attitudes have definitely changed towards the stigma of HIV/AIDS.

What was it like going back in time for the play?

Ben: This era is definitely very new to me to explore on stage, and the fact it’s also set in Australia is all the more exciting. It’s been really rewarding to explore an era in a particular country of which I didn’t know a great deal about, and to immerse myself in that world for two months.

The title is a phrase from Australian Rules Football, did you have to learn about that?

Ben: Yeah, that was something new to learn. The phrase isn’t actually quoted in the play or the memoir, but aside from the sporting definition, in which the offence or foul incurs a penalty, you can see the meaning reflected in John’s illness and eventual death, with writer of the play Tommy Murphy describing John’s ‘penalty’ as a “cruel and undeserved one”.

Can you each give us a brief history of your careers?

Ben: I graduated from Manchester Metropolitan School of Theatre in 2014 on the BA Acting course. Before that I was also a member of National Youth Theatre and Youth Music Theatre UK. I also play drums; the most recent show I did earlier this year was an actor-muso musical called Paper Hearts.

Jamie: I graduated from The Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts in 2012. My most notable role has been originating the role of Cliff in Victoria Woods stage adaptation of Housewife 49. I took three years always from the industry to focus on other passions like fitness and music. This production marks my return to the industry.

What would you like people to take away from the play?

Ben: This play has utterly heartbreaking, devastating moments as well as hilarious and colourful ones; after witnessing those powerful moments, I hope the audience can come away with a heartwarming, awakening feeling, to be reminded that love can speak endless volumes across generations, sexuality, race and class. This production couldn’t come at a better time and I believe it’s important it is seen and heard by as many people as possible.

Jamie: I want people to leave feeling moved by what they have experienced. Like any production we as actors want the audience to leave thinking.

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