Playing Rock Hudson takes the audience back to the very dark days when one was not living with HIV but dying from it. Movie star legend, Rock Hudson, died from AIDS related complications on October 5th, 1985 and Hollywood lost one of its most adored and handsome stars. Hudson’s death and legacy, though, helped change the world’s perception of HIV/AIDS. It got former US President Ronald Regan to finally address the issue of the epidemic, it saw many foundations being established (namely the Rock Hudson AIDS Research Foundation and Elizabeth Taylor’s The American Foundation for AIDS Research) but more broadly and importantly the general population of western countries were made aware of and, to some extent, stopped ignoring the catastrophe befalling around them.
Cameron Lukey’s new play touches upon this important aspect of the life of the very private Hudson and this was a highlight of the production. It used sound clips from actual news reports and one or two photos projected onto white cloth. The simple but clever set comprised of an array of 100s of stacked ‘Life’ celebrity magazines that snaked around the small Tower Theatre stage. The cover depicted Hudson with that winning all American smile – this immediately indicated this play revolved around a star who reigned supreme over several decades and represented the way the media and he manipulated each other.
Overall, the play’s main focus during the 90 minutes of performance was the court case Hudson’s former lover Marc Christian initiated three years after Hudson’s death. Christian sued Hudson’s estate on the grounds of reckless endangerment for not having disclosed his HIV status during the relationship. The jury, and the opening night audience, had to resolve the question of whether Christian was a true lover of the star and deserved some recognition and retribution or did he just want to cash in. This is an interesting enough premise for a play. It was executed well with fine performances from all cast members particularly the opposing attorneys in the court case.
The play perhaps could have been titled ‘Playing for or against Rock Hudson’ as this was the main concern, the evidence and cross-examining of the various witnesses. I was hoping for more playing of Rock Hudson with more stage time devoted to the backstory of his interactions with the people mentioned in the courtroom dialogue. I suppose the play on words here is that people in Hudson’s life could have been ‘playing’ him, especially Marc Christian. The play was at its best when we got vignettes of Hudson playing out his life, protecting himself and his fame and at the same time, trying to confidently live his homosexual life. His interactions with his agent, former lovers and Liz Taylor were intriguing and perhaps more of these would have balanced the play which was a little too much focused on a good old fashion courtroom drama dialogue. There were a handful of excellent vignettes depicting Hudson who was played by smokingly handsome Bart Walsh. These vignettes engendered many emotions – pity, adoration, and frustration towards Hudson the man. Also, Odette Galbally with her stunning looks, her very well executed American-British accent and her glamorous costumes played an excellent Liz Taylor. This character could have been put to more use within the story. Her monologue at the play’s end would have had more impact if she had featured more throughout the play.
Shane Savage plays Marc Christian plus Hudson’s first lover Jack Navaar with compassion and energy. The early scene when Jack and Rock met in 1952 was touching. This scene and its lines coming straight out of the pages of Sara Davidson’s authorized biography of Hudson which was published in 1986.
Cameron Lukey has done his research and has directed his play with imagination and some skill. His casting is exceptional and the simple set a strong feature. Audience members who already know the outcome of the trial are offered some insight into the life of this legend of the silver screen to keep them engaged. For those who do not know the outcome, it is a satisfying revelation.