“What do you see? … Be specific, be exact…” barks Mark Rothko (Alfred Molina), to his new studio assistant Ken (Alfred Enoch), who leans in to look at a recently finished mural work. “Red…” says Ken, nervously.
And so ensues a 90-minute dissection of Rothko’s choice of colour, his standing in the art world, the ‘point’ of art, and the artist’s own conflicting loyalties to himself and his audience – all played out as an impassioned dialogue between master and protégé.
‘Red’ was the wrong answer, it seems, until Ken explains what he means: “Red, like how the sunrise feels”. This at least gets him some way closer to the ‘deep and meaningful’ proclamations that Rothko relishes. “There’s tragedy in every brushstroke”, and “most of painting is thinking – only 10% is putting the paint on” are just a few of the artist’s personal aphorisms which are bandied around grandiloquently throughout.
John Logan’s Red premiered at the Donmar Warehouse in 2009 before transferring to Broadway, where it won six Tony Awards. This first UK revival at Wyndham’s Theatre sees the fresh-faced Alfred Enoch (whom audiences might recognise as Dean from the Harry Potter films) join Molina, who reprises his role as Rothko. Molina’s performance as the self-important, verbose artist is robust and commanding, while the lithe Enoch is convincing as his (fictional) assistant, who morphs from sheepish follower to audacious opponent of Rothko’s narcissism by the end of the drama.
The play is set in 1958, when Rothko was busy working on a series of murals commissioned for the newly opened Four Seasons hotel in the upmarket Seagram Building on Park Avenue in New York. The painter envisages these works as bedecking a “temple”, not in the sense of mere decoration, but as living, pulsating entities that distract the restaurant’s customers and transfigure the space into a quasi-sacred realm. He wants to épater le bourgeois with his grand and mysterious pieces of art. But he doesn’t allow for the indifference and aesthetic insensitivity of the Seagram’s clientele, and, by the end, is forced to question his own suppositions about the true purpose of art.
John Logan was reportedly inspired to write the play after seeing these murals hanging in the Tate. Both the account in the wall text of the commission itself, and the physical impact of the paintings themselves provided him with inspiration for what might on the face of it seem like rather thin theatrical subject matter.
But the striking physicality of the huge paintings (faithfully reproduced by Christopher Oram), and the physical process of creating the works are potent dramatic tools in themselves. The sheer hard graft involved in making the paintings becomes apparent during a beautifully choreographed sequence in which Rothko and Ken ferociously apply primer to a canvas, accompanied by an aria by Gluck. Music is important in the play, reflecting Rothko’s own love of sensual synthesis, in imitation of a Wagernian Gesamtkunstwerk ideal.
Ingenious lighting design from Neil Austin is shown to full effect when strip lighting is suddenly flicked on, transforming the set into a space resembling an abattoir. When switched off again, the audience is able to fully appreciate the way in which the soft warm glow lends a luminescence to the paintings exactly as Rothko wishes.
The revelation that Ken is an orphan, who witnessed the killing of his parents at the age of 7, falls curiously flat, nestled as it is within an impassioned debate on aesthetics. The subsequent association made between his memories of the colour of their blood, and the shade of red used by Rothko feels a little strained and overemphasised. Elsewhere, pontifications on subjects such as chromatic anthropomorphism, and the conflict between Apollonian and Dionysian world views drawn from Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy, risk becoming irritatingly and insincerely earnest, but the more grounded, honest debates between the two men are revealing and absorbing.
We build up a picture of an artist who, despite his apparent self-importance, is inwardly beleaguered by insecurity over his standing within the contemporary art world. In almost the same breath as Rothko admits how much he owes to Picasso, he cries jubilantly: “We destroyed cubism!”. He holds the belief that artists should starve … “except me”, he adds. This self-delusion and hypocrisy is satisfyingly wrestled with by Ken, who is only just setting out on his own artistic career.
What should you see? Red! It’s a brilliant play, masterfully brought to life once more by Grandage.
Red runs at Wyndham’s Theatre until 28th July 2018