By Catherine Lambert
It's been 10 years of negotiations, hopes and disappointments, but Melbourne actor Mark Diaco is finally bringing one of theatre's heavyweight roles to the stage.
While he did consider walking away from trying to secure the rights to Lanford Wilson’s Burn This (and the chance to play the lead role of Pale), he knows now the timing couldn't be more perfect.
"Coming to the material in a unique time means this isn't like another gig because we've had a forced reflection over the last seven months, which has reinvigorated us and a lot of creative spirits," Diaco said. "Although it's harder now, more than ever, to be an artist you just put all your chips in the middle of the table and have a real hard crack at it."
His determination to play Pale began 10 years ago when he read an excerpt at a masterclass with Ellen Burstyn. It's a role made famous by John Malkovich in 1987 and played by other greats including Adam Driver, Edward Norton, Eric Roberts and Richard Roxburgh. Soon after the masterclass, Burstyn likened Diaco to Norton. The road to securing the rights was long and arduous. Luckily, a friend, 16th Street's artistic director Kim Krejus, told him to reach out for the rights just one more time and they were finally available. "It's just a monster role. There's a laborious list of things that Pale holds on to, including the anger of a whole city, so it's definitely a workout, but I like roles that consume me and ask more of my reach than my grasp," he said. "I've felt like I was holding hands with the writer from the start. I've had similar feelings when I've done work by Sam Shepherd. I respond to the writer more than anything." Burn This is set in 1983 in New York during the AIDS pandemic with all of its fear, confusion and gay identity struggles. A tragic death forces the play's four characters to confront themselves and each other with Pale being the most emotionally torn.
"The crux of the story is how to find your way to touch another human soul spiritually, emotionally, physically," Diaco said ."There are so many things we're going through in the rehearsal room. I try to get into the weeds of it and I don’t have to stretch too much further than what I’ve felt this year. It's a once in a lifetime opportunity."
Fellow cast member Jacob Collins Levy was also drawn to the play's weighty subject matter. Having made his name in England in TV and film, he came home when the pandemic struck and is now making his stage debut in Melbourne as struggling screen writer Burton.
"I was on the cusp of some exciting things in London, but I was there in my one-bedroom flat, spending my birthday by myself as we went into lockdown with a stack of pancakes and candles my mum sent me," Collins Levy said.
"I bought a flight the next day. I left my stuff in the apartment and rented it out to a friend, thinking I'd get back, but now I’m happy to be back in Melbourne. I've been jumping around Europe for the last few years, but Melbourne was always the undertone. Now I want to see what I can do here."