A revival of John Logan’s play about the artist Mark Rothko (1903-1970), this play brings back its star, Alfred Molina, and director Michael Grandage, for its West End debut, following a 2009 run at the Donmar Warehouse, and later on Broadway.
Alongside Molina’s bald, brash and bullish Rothko, Alfred Enoch plays Ken – a young artist who assists Rothko in the creation of his sequence of abstract canvases of reds, blacks, and browns, destined for the walls of a high-class restaurant for the nouveau riche.
We first meet both men in the claustrophobic studio, lit by low lighting and dominated by the huge and bloated canvasses, cavernous blood reds (or variants on red, enumerated in one amusing back and forth exchange) and harsh blocked shapes. Rothko is self-absorbed, uncompromising, creative, with each painting a child with its umbilical cord ripped from the heart.
As this short piece – just 90 minutes – progresses we see the men achieve an unspoken understanding about art, which culminates with Ken, enthusing about the pop art revolution of Warhol and Lichtenstein, just as Rothko and his contemporaries shook up the establishment in their day, emerging from the chrysalis as a fully formed butterfly, ready to go it alone with his own work (which we never see).
There are moments of pathos in this play, which reminded me at times of the closing moments of Yasmina Reza’s clever three-hander, Art. Molina displays both the passion of the veteran painter – in the vibrant and almost balletic sequence where he and Enoch prime an entire canvas in maroon tones, leaving them exhausted, paint-speckled, and fully engaged with the joy of creation – and the tragedy of a painter finding himself almost out of time, reduced to ‘selling out’ for the masses.
This play is a treat, which made me start to read around about the abstract painters and their descendants. Both leading roles are judged perfectly, and a nod needs to be made to Christopher Oram’s richly dressed sets, Neil Austin’s lighting design, and Adam Cork’s sound design, which mixes gramophone records of opera, classical and jazz.
Red continues at the Wyndham’s until the 28th July 2018.