It has been a long-awaited welcome back to theatre, but nothing compared to the arduous decade-long perseverance of actor, writer, producer and illustrator, Mark Diaco, to bring the iconic Burn This play to Melbourne.
The rights to the 1986 play, set in New York City amidst the Aids epidemic, are notoriously difficult to obtain. It debuted Off Broadway in 1987 and starred John Malkovich and Joan Allen (who won the 1988 Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play as a result), whilst the most recent production in 2019 on Broadway starred Adam Driver and Keri Russell.
The protracted path to bringing the play to life began when 16th Street Actors Studio in Melbourne brought out the multi-award winning American actress of the stage and screen, Ellen Burstyn (Oscar, Emmy, Grammy, SAG and Tony award winner). In her mentoring sessions with the actors, Diaco was chosen to read the role of Pale – the volatile, erratic, passionate yet grief-stricken male protagonist of the story. Burstyn’s advice and subsequent commendation of Diaco’s performance sparked the desire for him to pursue the rights to the play.
Although the last ten years may have felt like a slow burn to bring the play to life, 2021 saw the Melbourne production of this acclaimed play come blazing out of the gates, selling out its short season in record time (even with added shows due to popular demand). Not only was this a testament to the thirst of theatre-goers to return to the dark sidelines of the stage with bated (albeit masked) breath, but attestation of our desire to encounter human emotion. To engage in a shared experience and again witness a creative craft lit by glow of spotlight.
The ensemble cast of this fiery play included Diaco as Pale, Jessica Clarke as Anna, Dushan Philips as Larry and Jacob Collins Levy as Burton. Levy, who had returned to Melbourne from the UK shortly after the pandemic started, had played the lead character of Henry VII in the 2017 Starz television seriesThe White Princess, alongside Emmy award-winning actress Jodie Comer (Killing Eve).
The play is directed by Iain Sinclair, a very well respected director recognised for his knowledge of American literature and touted as an ‘actor’s director’. Before accepting the invitation to join 16th Street, Sinclair was the Senior Dramaturg at Playwriting Australia and a prolific Theatre Director in Sydney, including Assistant Director to Cate Blanchett when she was Artistic Director at the Sydney Theatre Company.
Performed at Fortyfive Downstairs, the gallery was the perfect setting for a Manhattan apartment; all industrial open-plan layout complete with high ceilings, arched windows and exposed brickwork. The set became a metaphor for the characters, as the bricks weren’t the only things exposed. The play’s somber and melancholic opening accelerated intensely as emotions were laid bare on the floorboards of Anna’s loft. The anger, sorrow, frustration, grief, melancholy and fear of the characters, a direct mirror to the city at the time, played out with vehement force.
Brilliantly performed monologues in perfect variants of North American accents aided in the belief and storytelling of these four people trying to understand themselves; their identity, their emotions and where they fit in the world. The loss of a friend and family member amplifies this confusion, as each character doesn’t seem to know what they want, let alone how to get it or hold on to it. The abrupt and thunderous entrance of Pale [Diaco] onto the stage and into the other character’s lives, is as explosive and volatile as it is magnetic and alluring; his captivating presence like a slap to the face whilst being caressed between the thighs. An entrance that will be etched into every theatre-goer’s mind until kingdom come.
The passion and magnetism between Clarke and Diaco is immediate and consuming. Diaco’s opening dialogue with her is a frenetic one, where F bombs and the C word are dropped like sprinkles on a cupcake, in-between his rising coke-fuelled anger at his departed brother, whom he never fully knew, and the city that is changing daily. Diaco recently stated in an interview that he likes roles that consume him and ask more of his reach than his grasp. I found this to be an enlightening statement, proving that Diaco understands the layers of his characters, yet never stops learning about, or growing with them; he never settles into a comfort zone that won’t see him push himself above and beyond every night. Diaco was nothing short of brilliant in this play. He delivered a heavy-hitting performance that was as capricious as it was sensitive. His grasp of the character’s delicate inner turmoil and outward swaggering bravado showcased his immeasurable talent to play out raw emotion without ever losing focus.
Clarke’s performance of Anna’s anguish, vulnerability and fierce determination was stellar. For all of Diaco’s earth-shattering moments on stage, that could have overshadowed another performer, Clarke’s steely presence and ability to hold her ground against such an intensified character highlighted her aptitude to deliver her message amongst the chaos. Clarke’s channeling of grief represented as anger is powerful and it seems like her character is using Pale as a broken buoy for her own sea of confusion, as the two spiral into the depths together, sinking further by the play’s end. The repeated line, “I don’t want this”, is less a reflection on their passion for one another, and more an audible despair at the situation they find themselves in.
The unabashed and much needed comedic relief is so eloquently portrayed by Philips, whose stereotypical gay housemate role is cleverly reversed to reveal a character that is ultimately the compass rose for the other characters. His fabulousness is matched by his awareness of his friends’ turmoils and his gradual melancholia that grows throughout the play. Philips’ delightful quips are delivered so naturally (albeit with crisp camp humour) and pepper the play with sunshine amongst the glooming shadows of grief and lighting strikes of passion. Larry is as confused and sad as the other characters but it’s clear that people and their interactions with one another fascinate him and he is often watching the incident unfurl, just as the audience is. And so, there is a real gregariousness that the audience feels with both Philips and his portrayal of Larry.
Levy’s Burton is surprisingly the most intriguing character in terms of his sexual identity; a character whose wealth and upbringing make him invariably question the actions of others but never those of himself. His lofty playwright dreams are always about something unattainable in his own life, centring on fantasies and other worlds, until his recent work is set in NY and has the other characters fascinated. He is averse to sharing the script, until at last, when his relationship with Anna is finished, he lets Larry read it. Burton is the only character that seems to get some closure, and is wonderfully played by Levy. His passionate dialogue about chance encounters and what’s written in his plays is in stark contrast to his passion towards Anna, which feel more about possessing something for status sake, and less about true intensity and love.
Burn This is a dynamic play that seeks to reveal the layers of its characters in a fittingly reflective time of panic; where hidden identities and secrets are wishfully absolved by cleansing with fire. However, it is the aftermath of these truths that sets the passion for the characters alight, as they share in the reconditioning that grief creates.
Jessica Clarke (Anna) and Mark Diaco (Pale) in Burn This