More than an iconic, beloved movie star from the Golden Age of Hollywood, Rock Hudson has come to represent a massive turning point in gay history, both in relation to coming out versus being closeted and in putting a human face to the dawning of understanding of the HIV virus and the devastating effects of AIDS. Hudson’s personal tragedy came at a turning point that saw the public forced to take notice and the government forced to act.
Such dramatic fodder seems ideal material for a play, especially when you have a leading actor with such an uncanny resemblance to the original man. Using a simple, non-naturalistic staging, newcomer Cameron Lukey has directed this production of his own play. Featuring strong actors and well-chosen design elements, the play is an interesting trip down memory lane, but ultimately does not make sufficiently gripping use of the inherently dramatic material.
Ryan Foote’s design houses the action in a multi-purpose room of wooden benches, papered with umpteen copies of Rock Hudson on the cover of Life magazine, an effective symbol of the omnipresent impact of image and its symbiotic connection with the media. With the full cast of seven actors on stage for most of the play, Clare Springett’s lighting is most effective in bringing the characters in and out of focus as the action moves from the past to the present, and from the real to the surreal.
A highlight of Esther Marie Hayes’ costumes is the spectacularly glamorous outfit for the young Elizabeth Taylor (Odette Galbally). The six men are dressed handsomely, although perhaps some flourishes are needed to help distinguish between the two-three characters each man plays.
The cleverest of these multiple characters is the use of Shane Savage to play early lover Jack Navaar as well as principal focus Marc Christian, giving the strong suggestion that Hudson favoured a blonde, athletic “type.”
Burgeoning actor Bartholomew Walsh is the young man who has the incredible similarity to Rock Hudson, right down to the chiseled jaw, thick dark hair and smoldering bedroom eyes. When Hudson, as personified by Walsh, meets his partners, you know they do not have a chance but to succumb to the movie star’s irresistible charms. Walsh particularly succeeds at capturing the inscrutable side of Hudson, as he strives to maintain the shrouded secrecy of his private life. Much as the multiple casting generally worked, it must be mentioned that it was a mistake to have Walsh play a second character, as he was so clear in our minds as Hudson.
Andrew Carolane has a strong presence as lawyer and biographer Robert Mills. Richard Aspel is suitably slimy as Hudson’s evasive PA Mark Miller. Nick Backstrom is convincing as Hudson’s sleazy agent Henry Willson and prosecutor Harold Rhoden. Sam Lavery uses a range of accents to distinguish between his various characters, often flicking between them at a rapid pace.
Lukey has elicited focused, committed performances from his cast, and this is a highlight of the production. The script is clearly well researched and contains plenty of interesting information. Ultimately, however, there is little tension, with the material coming across with the feel of a documentary, eliciting little empathy from the audience and providing little insight behind the facts. The personal, intimate scenes are strong, but unfortunately these are few and far between, with the courtroom exposition dominating much of the action. The fresh perspective of a separate director may have helped to refine and focus the script so as to draw out the journey of the characters and to raise the dramatic stakes.
Younger theatregoers may find more interest in the plot, being unfamiliar with the events being conveyed. More seasoned theatregoers will enjoy the performances and the chance to reflect of the significant time of the early–mid 1980s.
Playing Rock Hudson plays at Tower Theatre, The Coopers Malthouse until 4 December 2013
Photos: Pia Johnson