Painting The Town...

31 March 2012 | 11:18 am | Liza Dezfouli

Liza Dezfouli paints a dark and complex picture with actor André de Vanny, about to share the stage with Colin Friels in Red, the play about artist Mark Rothko.

Actor André de Vanny is well known to Melbourne audiences from his numerous appearances in film and on television, notably in the programme Wicked Science, among others. He is about to step onto the stage in Red, by American playwright John Logan, in his debut with the Melbourne Theatre Company.

Red is the story behind painter Mark Rothko's withdrawal from a lucrative commission to paint murals for an upmarket New York restaurant in the late '50s, but the saga of the Seagram murals is the background to the real driving story, explains de Vanny, who plays assistant Ken to Colin Friels' Rothko. “It's a play about the relationship between two men. They develop a wonderful relationship over the two years; Rothko is a great mentor.” De Vanny's character isn't drawn from anyone in particular, says the actor. “Rothko had several assistants at the time. My character exists as his conscience. He is there to learn and listen. And they develop this wonderful friendship.” So where does the play's drama come from? “There is no major event; no one dies,” notes de Vanny. “But the play is filled with drama. The relationship becomes like a father/son relationship and then there's the question of artistic integrity and ambition. It's about the importance and power of art.”

The Seagram murals were never hung in their intended place in the Four Seasons restaurant; Rothko famously refused to continue with the project, citing his distaste for the bourgeois environment in which his paintings would hang, although he had understood from the beginning the social milieu of the restaurant's clientele. “The overarching story is that it weighed heavily on his conscience,” de Vanny continues. “He was considered one of the greatest living painters, if not the greatest, at the time. The play asks the question, 'What does art mean to these two men?' It's concerned with integrity versus ambition.”

The late '50s saw an intense flowering of artistic expression and dialogue, especially in New York, notes the actor. “It was a fertile time for artists, such a pivotal time. During the play you really get a sense of what's outside the room. ”Excitingly for de Vanny, he was already in the States and so was able to visit New York City after being cast as Ken. “I saw some of Rothko's work; I wandered through the East Village and stood outside the studio where the play is set. It's very visceral – the sounds, the smells, the subway.”

De Vanny says his major challenge in preparing for this role is in 'letting go' – allowing the director 'to be the director' and also giving himself over to the rhythms of the language. “It's only my second real play,” he says. “It's different from film acting. There's a lot of dialogue; when you look at all those steps it seems like a big journey. Not that I am afraid of the whole thing but it can seem like a gigantic task; there are so many beats and moments. It's about trusting the rhythms, trusting each moment will get you to the next moment. The lyricism in the dialogue can be a beautiful thing.”

In an echo of the play's themes, de Vanny mentions his enjoyment of working with Friels. “It has become very important to me, the relationship with Colin. He's a very generous actor.”