Sunday, 22 July 2012

Holding the Man - A Personal Reflection

Last week, a film crew landed in my living room. I was to be interviewed for a documentary called John and Tim, being made by Waterbyrd Filmz, about the lives of John Caleo and Timothy Conigrave. Conigrave wrote Holding the Man, a candid and magical memoir of his 15-year relationship with Caleo.

I was being interviewed because I directed the theatrical adaptation of the book. In 2005, as Artistic Director of Sydney's Griffin Theatre Company, I commissioned Tommy Murphy to adapt the memoir. By November 2006 we had it onstage at the Stables Theatre. We remounted it six times, including at the Sydney Opera House, Belvoir and Melbourne Theatre Company, and most recently in 2010 in London's West End. There have been productions in San Francisco and Auckland, with others coming up. For such a particular Australian story, it's a remarkable trajectory.

Conigrave was born in 1959 and went to Xavier College in Melbourne, an elite Jesuit school (also attended by Bill Shorten and Sir Les Patterson). Tim, who wanted to be an actor, fell in love with John, the captain of the football team. They declared themselves boyfriends in 1976. Tim went to NIDA while John became a chiropractor. Despite unrelenting obstacles, they remained together until John's death on Australia Day, 1992.

Holding the Man is one of the great love stories, and is unsurpassed as an account of the devastation caused by HIV/AIDS in Sydney during the '80s and '90s. If any book can be guaranteed to make you cry, it's this one. It does so, I think, for a range of complex reasons, not the least of which is that it describes a rare love with irresistible candour.

It's a book with a special place in Australian life. It was published by Penguin in February 1995, just a few months after Conigrave's death on 18 October 1994, a month short of his 35th birthday. The book has never been out of print and is, I think, up to its fourteenth reprint. It's been published in Spain (2002) and North America (2007). It won the United Nations Human Rights Award for Non-Fiction in 1995 and was listed as one of the '100 Favourite Australian Books' by the Australian Society of Authors for its 40th anniversary in 2003. In 2009, it was nice to see Penguin publish it in its $9.95 Popular Penguins orange stripe series. My guess is that it's one of the most 'passed on' of Australian books. I've handed over more copies than I can count. 

In many ways, it's a simple book. It's written in disarmingly straightforward prose, without literary pretension of any kind, and might be read simply as a 'growing up in the '70s' story. The book is full of references to music, films and TV programs of the period. It's a lot of fun and very evocative.

The interview encouraged many memories to the surface. 

I remembered sitting with Tommy in Beare Park just below my apartment in Sydney's Elizabeth Bay. We'd just finished a terrific season at Griffin with Tommy's first play on a professional stage, Strangers in Between. I wanted to find something else for him. I asked whether he thought adapting Holding the Man was a good idea, and whether he thought he was the person for the task. I thought he was, but wanted him to say it. To my mind, Tommy had the sensitivity, sense of humour and unguarded theatrical imagination I believed necessary for any stage version. Sitting on the park bench, Tommy told me he'd heard of the book, but had not read it. The cover - a blurry photograph of two partially naked men - made him dismiss it, he said. 

I asked him to read it.

He did so, and then wrote me the most astonishing email. He described at length the experience of reading the book on a bus journey to his parents' home in Queanbeyan, and getting to the final chapters with his head on his boyfriend's lap, sobbing. He described how reading Tim's life was like reading his own. Tommy had no experience of HIV/AIDS - which made some of the book a startling revelation - but Tim's travels through student theatre and NIDA and work at Griffin Theatre Company tuned with many of Tommy's experiences. Tommy felt a profound need to tell the story for another generation. He was 25, twenty years younger than Tim would have been, and felt a mission.

I remembered my first encounter with the book. In early 1994, I was offered  a job at Sydney Theatre Company. I was arriving from a similar position at Queensland Theatre Company, and so needed a place to stay for a while until I found somewhere permanent. My friend Nick Enright offered me a room in his house in Newtown. Nick had been Tim's acting teacher at NIDA, and they were now good friends. At this time, while I was settling myself into Sydney and its flagship theatre company, Nick would often visit Tim in hospital, helping with the shaping of the book. Tim's health was failing, Nick told me, so there was a need to work quickly. I remember typed copies of draft chapters sitting on top of Nick's piano. I would read these loose A4 pages, intrigued by the accounts of growing up in Melbourne and life in Sydney theatre not many years past. I would be amused at Nick's furious corrections of Tim's punctuation. IT'S = IT IS!, the thick pencil would often scream. 

I remembered when I first read the published book. It was on the day it hit the bookstores. That morning I was to board a flight to Paris with a group of Australian playwrights for an STC exchange with the
Comédie-Française. I knew the book was out that day, so quickly found a copy in a Potts Point book shop to read on the plane. 

I read it in one go, with unexpected and uncontrollable sobbing over the last 50 pages or so. In Singapore's Changi Airport, I think it was, I passed it on to playwright Karin Mainwaring. This was the first of probably a dozen copies I would pass on over the years. It's remarkable how much people want to share the book. Interestingly, many read it in one go on long journeys, just as Tommy and I had done in different decades.  

I remembered when we got the rights to adapt the book. Nick Enright had been Tim's literary executor, but on Nick's death in 2003 that role passed to Nick's literary executor, David Marr, who then devolved responsibility for Conigrave's work to Conigrave's sister, Anna. I wrote to her. Anna didn't know us at all, so (I'm told) she asked the actor Victoria Longely for advice. Victoria was a great friend of Tim's - they were at NIDA together, lived together for a period, and some of her can be found in the character 'Veronica' in Holding the Man. I imagine that Victoria's advice would have been crucial to Anna's decision making.

As fate would have it, Victoria was someone with whom I had a close relationship. I had directed her several times at STC in the 1990s, and she worked as an assistant director on a STC show of mine. Our first project together was in early 1995, just six months after Tim's death, when she performed in my production of Brad Fraser's Poor Super Man. For Veronica, being part of this show was very much a private tribute to Tim. Tim died of an AIDS-related illness, and Brad's play was a deeply affecting Canadian work that was, in great part, a homage to those who had died in similar circumstances. I remember one day Victoria coming into the rehearsal room thrilled that Holding the Man had won its United Nation Human Rights award. It was a roller coaster time.

Victoria died of breast cancer in 2010. Thanks, Vic, for putting in a good word x

I remembered visiting the Conigrave home in Melbourne. All of the Conigrave family had been terrifically supportive leading up to the production, and indeed ever since, but Tommy and I felt the need to meet Tim's mother and father before they saw the show. They were coming to opening night, and the thought of meeting them for the first time in the foyer was just too silly. We realised that we had a responsibility to introduce them to the experience in a more respectful way. They would, after all, not only be seeing themselves on stage, sometimes in scenes that never quite happened that way in either the book or in life, but would also witness the death of John and be reminded of things that one could never adequately predict.

It was a delightful Sunday afternoon. Tim's younger brother, Nicholas, also met us at the family home, but he soon left us alone with Dick and Mary Gert. I think we spent maybe four or five hours in their company, over some lovely glasses of Riesling. It was magical being with them, in their home. After such a long period of research and thinking, we both felt that we knew the house - the phone, on which Tim and John had so many furtive conversations, was still there; a photograph of Topolino, the Italian Mickey Mouse and an important memento in Tim and John's relationship, was on the fridge; down the corridor, we imagined the sunroom into which Tim would sometimes sneak when John stayed over. Sitting in the living room, where so many important family discussions and arguments took place, was a moving melding of fact and memoir, of past and present.

Gert shared how she had read the book in one sitting late one night, in the chair where she now sat. She showed us photographs, and paintings Tim had made. She told us how over the years people have written letters, simply looking up 'Conigrave' and 'Brighton' in the phone book, then popping a letter in the post, hoping for the best. She keeps shoe boxes of these letters, testaments to the power of the book and to the impact her son's life has made on so many. I suspect these letters have had a powerful healing effect over the years. 

Dick was more circumspect, as men of that generation often are, and indeed he reminded me of my own father. Yet he was clearly proud of his son, and charmed us. He saw the play several times - an experience that must have been particularly challenging, since he told us that he had never read the book. Dick passed away in 2009. In The Age newspaper, in a moving gesture to marriage equality, the funeral notice read in part:
Loved father of Timothy (dec), Anna and Nicholas.
Loved father-in-law of John (dec), Anthony and Hilary.
I remembered how, when we left the Conigrave home, full of inspiration and contentment, Tommy and I stood on a corner searching for a cab. From out of the shop behind us floated Depeche Mode's Just Can't Get Enough. This was an important song for Tim and John, and was Tim's funeral march in St Canice's Catholic Church in Elizabeth Bay, just around the corner from where I'd had that first conversation with Tommy. The song closed the first act of our production. Tommy and I looked at each other, said nothing, but our eyes welled. What were the odds?

Neither of us are superstitious, but time and time again through this project we had felt Tim's encouraging hand. On the first day of rehearsals, out of the blue, a package arrived from James Waites: CDs of three hours of an interview Jim had recorded with Tim in January 1993 as part of an HIV oral history project for the National Library. We had known nothing of this interview. It was as if Tim's voice demanded to be heard that day. There were many other times when Tim said hello.

I remembered the first preview. It was a nervous occasion. This was a deeply loved book, and if we got it wrong we might never be forgiven. But the foyer was full of good will and all seemed to go well. As the applause eventually faded, a young man sitting behind me tapped me on the shoulder: "Hello. I think you've all done a great job. I'm Anthony Caleo, John's baby brother".

I really didn't know what to do. Our only contact with the Caleo family had been a letter from Anna, as Tim's literary executor, letting the family know, as a matter of courtesy, that she had granted permission for a stage adaptation of her brother's book. There had been no reply. We saw no need to contact the Caleos ourselves. It was Tim's book were were adapting, not John's. So Anthony's gesture had great meaning.

I asked if he would like to meet the cast. I went backstage and let them all know about our very special visitor. For some hours, Anthony shared stories. He later struck up something of a friendship with Matt Zeremes, the actor playing his older brother. Three days later, Anthony posted this on a blog that fielded one of many online discussions about the book and play:

Hello there everyone, I am John Caleo’s baby brother Anthony. I just wanted to say thank you for all your kind words as this story truly represents one of the most beautiful depictions of love and devotion in the modern era.
I went and saw Tommy Murphy’s adaption of ‘Holding The Man’ at the Griffin Theatre on Friday 4th November and to my great relief, it was the most amazing live theatre experience I had ever been fortunate enough to attend. The characters were so accurate it was like I had been transported back 20 years as John’s favourite little sibling. I remember the days when I used to go to Sydney to visit John in Rose Bay in my school holidays, life was fun, John was wonderful and Tim was entertaining. All of the fondest memories about John floated through my mind whilst I absorbed the play, trying to reconcile why the most beautiful people are always taken from us. Unfortunately, it was incredibly difficult to witness his death in the play as it was portrayed so wonderfully and sensitively by David Berthold’s cast.
I will miss John forever and I feel complete after seeing this work of art. I now have closure.                                  
I remembered when the play found a wider audience. Early on, the audience was mostly gay men. I guess that was to be expected, especially in Sydney. The book was famous in the gay community, and as soon as we announced that we were staging it, they bought up most of the tickets. After a performance one night, a group of older gay men, of Tim's generation, stood and hugged in a circle on the stage. In silence, they remembered friends and partners they had lost in the horror of that time. In the seats beyond, a young couple, a man and woman in their 20s, looked on in wonder and terror.

Before long, and particularly by the time the production transferred to the Sydney Opera House, the audience grew even more diverse. For a great many people, gay and straight, male and female, young and old, the story touched a well. For some, the theatre became a place of remembrance and reclaiming; for others, it was a place of wide-eyed discovery; for others still, it was a place to hold a loved one.

I never met Tim, but as the film crew packed up their equipment and left me alone, I remembered how close we had become. We had several friends in common, had stood and worked in many of the same places, had entwined our lives in ways I could never have imagined. I have several boxes marked 'Holding the Man', containing drafts of scripts, research material, letters from people affected by the production, cards, photographs. These are some of the physical remnants of a special endeavour. But in some private rooms of my heart, those places of retreat reserved for times of need and longing, I hold memories that never fail to repair me, for they sing to the miracle of unconditional love. 

Tim and John


  1. I've never read Holding The Man since I don't think I could handle it. Thank you for sharing a beautiful reflection.

  2. Have just finished reading and sobbing through Holding the Man again, this time for book club and stumbled across this blog. Thanks David for this wonderful article. Brett

  3. Beautiful to read this. Saw your recent revival for La Boite in Brisbane, wish I could have seen it again on stage. Like you, David, I have some resonances with Tim's story and that makes it all the more affecting.

    Thank you for taking the trouble to share your experiences.

  4. Thanks for these comments. It was a genuine and humbling pleasure to remount the show at La Boite. I'm very glad we did it. We all miss it now.

  5. This was such a wonderful read, David! I also just finished Tim's book, never before have I ugly-cried quite so hard over a piece of literature, nor laughed out loud a chapter or so prior to doing so. Tim and John's story is one that more people should get to hear and see, I'm so glad it's been adapted for the stage so beautifully by you and Tommy. The play has, without exaggeration, changed my life and ignited my already giddy adoration of theatre. I took my unartistic, grunt-speaking younger brother to see it, his first time seeing a play, and he really enjoyed himself! Wonderful work indeed! :)

  6. Thanks Liv. So glad the play took you to the book - and that you found it such a moving read - and that you took your brother to the play. It's a story that offers much to readers and to theatre goers. For all involved in the stage version it's been nothing other than a joyous and humbling experience.

  7. Your words are beautiful, David - so are Anthony Caleo's. I have often imagined the pain that John's family went through during his illness and after his death and it is so good to read that Anthony felt some closure after seeing the play. I saw the play at La Boite, Brisbane - just superb and so true to the book which I think is one of the best books ever written. With great admiration, Catherine

  8. Beautiful to read this. Saw your recent revival for La Boite in Brisbane, wish I could have seen it again on stage.If you are facing back related issues like most of the Aussies, you should definitely consult any qualified Chiropractor
    Sydney cbd

  9. Thank you for writing this. I regret having missed the chance to watch your play. I moved to Australia in 2012 and a friend gave me this book sometime in 2013, I think. My experience of reading it was just as you describe it here. I will always cherish that and it will be interesting to revisit the book in the future. Your post here is a beautiful and moving account. Thanks for sharing and good wishes for your work!

  10. Thank you for writing this. I regret having missed the chance to watch your play. I moved to Australia in 2012 and a friend gave me this book sometime in 2013, I think. My experience of reading it was just as you describe it here. I will always cherish that and it will be interesting to revisit the book in the future. Your post here is a beautiful and moving account. Thanks for sharing and good wishes for your work!

    1. Thank you for dropping by Arjun, and for your kind thoughts. I hope you'll get a chance to see the film of the story. Be great to know what you think.

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  12. I read this book 10 years ago just after I broke up with a partner. Terrible time to read it as I was already feeling emotional. My uncle had also died of Aids so it really hit a nerve. Last night I finally got to watch the movie - absolutely brilliant and so heartbreaking. If there weren't others in the cinema I would have just sat there and cried for an hour after. I found myself being angry with Tim a few times for hurting John. I just wanted to hug poor John and tell him it would be ok :(
    I just want to cry haha

    1. Thanks for sharing those things. Isn't it great that the story has reached out to so many people like this, uncovering wells of emotion within us?

  13. I have just finished watching the film on DVD and it brought hack so many memories of Tim and John. I was a friend of theirs when we were all in Young Gays together in Melbourne. That scene in the hotel were we were attacked made me shudder. I can still remember the mad terrified drive back to the house we were all staying in and the discussions on what we would do if the thugs followed us. I cried at John's funeral and again at Tim's. The book devastated me, the play did the same. When I first saw the film, it brought back so many painful memories but having seen it again at home, the tears are now ones of joy tinged with sadness.

  14. Thanks for sharing this Mick. I was really pleased that scene was in the film. Great that the film is out on DVD on on itunes now.

  15. How I got to this blog, I wonder. It's only because since I watched the movie 10 days ago (accidentally came across it on iTunes) and just finished reading the book, I haven't stopped insanely searching the net under various strings of names of Jonh Caleo and Tim Conigrave....First I watched the movie.... it touched me so deep as right on the following day I made a visit to their college in Kew, just driving around the fields of the school, picturing the scene I watched in the movie to the actual school yards. I felt in love with John just as much Tim did (thanks for the brilliant story line of the book), I felt so sad for John, I became too fragile to be crushing with any one who looks like John. I wanted a boyfriend like John, I sent messages of that regards to some of my friends declaring my emotions to John. For Tim, I didn't like his character in the movie as much I did for John, and I thought they were a mismatch. Tim dumped John, he cheated on him and maybe used him at certain times. Once I am half through the book I started to recognise the deep love Tim had for John, I fell in love with Tim. This book and this great love has touched me so I sent a message to once my boyfriend who now lives abroad just to show him appreciation for the time we were together, I used the sentences and the sentiment of John and Tim as mentioned in the book when both exchanged the appreciation of being together in the relationship for that long time ...., such a beautiful scene only if it was in the film. It is been two weeks since I got to know HTM, and still I am not over it yet, indeed, I must find John's grave to visit, and I will go to Canberra's Public Library to listen to Tim's interview, try to watch the staged play of the book, take a ride and pass by John's family home in East Ivanho, and surely to look for that spot at Rose Bay near their home where they took some photos..... I'm deeply saddened and in love with John and Tim. Thank you all and thank you David Berthed.

  16. I am completely addicted to their story. I've read the book and watched the film and I can't wait to have the opportunity to watch the documentary. I wish I have a chance to have it available in my country soon. Shortly after reading the book I loved to entertain the thought of telling Tim and John how their story got told and how they made a difference. I think the most gut wrenching part of it all is that they never got the chance to know how important they became.

  17. Can someone please please please tell me if the last few days of Johns life did his brothers, other family, friends, Tim's family etc visit John before he passed away and same with Tim before he passed away friends family any of John's family visit him ? I don't know why but I just have to know I hope for both of them they had all the love of friends and family before they both died. I have watched the movie twice and it has affected me in ways I cannot describe. I watch the movie from where they spend there last Christmas together to the end of the movie I turn the volume down and play in the background Sometimes I need you(Sam Taylor) Hero(Mariah Carey) I have Nothing(Whitney Houston) We have only just began(Carpenters) Because you loved me (Celine Dion) plus some other songs. It bring me to tears of sad and happiness.
    Love will bring us together

    1. According to the book - John's parents did visit him in hospice and were with him (as was Tim) when he passed. This story continues to haunt me!

  18. I only came across Tim and John's story a couple of months ago, completely by accident. I then read the book and have seen the film. Their love and the ultimate price they paid for it is something that I can't shake off. I want to know more, everything about them. May their love shine a beacon of hope but for now I will simply grab another tissue and ponder more.

  19. I just can't even begin to explain how touched I am by this story my mom was watching the movie and I just so happen to come by and she had it playing the last 2 weeks she has had it on everyday sometimes 4 times a day she watches it over and over and over she can't stop replaying this movie over and over now I can't stop o cried every time I've watched it ,I have no words for how it makes me feel inside I'm touched so touched makes me appreciate love and life it's shown me to appreciate life because all we have is right now ..I love and miss you John and Tim ❤❤ love always tina Marie lynch (Portland Oregon)