American abstract expressionist artist Mark Rothko didn’t just paint in red. He painted in delicate golds, cobalt, tangerine and shades of greens, pinks, blues, and dazzling yellows. He produced abstract paintings five to six feet tall, often fuelled by high intensity and historical commentary of socio-political events – the atom bomb, WWII and death camps. He believed that a painting had to measure up the tragic trajectory of human history.
Returning back to the West End – after a successful run at the Donmar Warehouse in 2009 and winning six Tony Awards at Broadway – is John Logan’s Red, with director Michael Grandage and legendary actor Alfred Molina. There’s real bite in this 90-minute play – a splash of witty, delicately woven dialogue between the ‘serious’ artist and his young, bright-eyed assistant, Ken (tremendously performed by Alfred Enoch). Red spills the truth on Rothko’s chilling occupation with the art world during a crucial period of the 20th century, while musing, unapologetically, against his assistant on deep ontological questions, such as ‘what is art?’
Christopher Oram’s set gives a flavour of what Rothko’s 1958 art studio, situated in downtown Manhattan, might have looked like. Half the size of a basketball court, with superficial lighting appropriately arranged by lighting designer Neil Austin, large canvases surround the room, against the wall. Oram’s staging presents an industrious artist who worked in paint-soaked clothes, produced raw materials and cooked up colours from scratch. Yet the best part of the play, paramount to the production’s success, is its execution and way in which the genius and art assistant verbally tackle each other as they, frustrating, try to find some truth about art. One of them believes that they are wiser than the other. Guess which one that is?
There’s a force within Molina’s extraordinary performance of Rothko. Before the show starts (2.30pm for the matinee performance or 7.30pm for the evening showing) Molina has already sunk into the artist’s sofa, aligned his character’s psychological mindset and extracted a past filled with anger, compulsive behaviour and existential woe. Molina has the added benefit of playing artists previously in Julie Taymor’s 2002 film, Frida, alongside Salma Hayek, and making his Broadway debut in Yasmina Reza’s Art (1998).
He is matched with Enoch’s exposed and open-minded Ken. At first, Enoch’s, convincing played, assistant permits Rothko to criticise and talk down to him. But he looks up to him. He is inspired by him. Once a year has passed, however, he realises Rothko was treating him as an employee, not as a mentee. Their threads of conversation, which swiftly moves from Greek philosophy, psychoanalysis to Nietzsche, is tantalising. (This may be the reason why Plato wrote down the many dialogues Socrates had with his peers: to come to some sort of conclusion on knowledge and truth.) Molina’s character changes his classical vinyl records, ranging from Mozart, German lieder and piano concertos, depending on his mood, while confronting Ken’s preference for jazz, or anything trendy and new.
On stage, Molina and Enoch dance around each other’s character (old-age versus new-age), not necessarily in unison, though. There’s a grandiose scene of them (that will stay in my memory for a long time) painting a canvas together, as quickly as possible. The music is loud and within two minutes the entire canvas, that was once empty, is filled with the colours of Santa Claus, Satan, a rose, a bloodstain, a cherry… the list goes on. As the French painter, Edgar Degas once said, ‘Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.’
Throughout the play, Rothko asks Ken, ‘what do you see?’ Looking out into the audience, Ken won’t find the answer, nor will the audience, or whether Rothko should complete his commission for the Four Seasons Restaurant on Park Avenue. Yet what the audience can discover is what becomes of this power-struggle of a relationship between two strong yet polarising characters.
Red is now showing at Wyndham’s Theatre until July 28. Click here to purchase tickets.
(I purchased my ticket for this show.)