Plays and films about art invariably centre on work produced against a fraught personal life and the troubled soul of the artist. The Agony and The Ecstasy, Vincent In Brixton, even Sondheim’s Sunday In The Park With George show Michelangelo, Van Gogh and Seurat respectively battling demons both external and internal. So, it comes as no particular surprise that John Logan’s Red treads a similar path as it homes in on a particular period of the life of Mark Rothko. It was first produced at the Donmar in 2009 and then remounted in the West End in 2018; this latter is the source of the current recording.
It’s 1958 and Rothko is taking on a new assistant, Ken, who also wishes to be an artist. Rothko is in the middle of creating a series of works due to be hung in the Four Seasons restaurant in the newly finished Seagram building in New York. It is a major commission, and the artist has painted a whole series of canvases from which just a handful will be chosen. But he is very uneasy about what he is doing. He fears that the work torn from his very soul will simply be used as inappropriate decoration for rich diners to largely ignore and certainly misunderstand. It is the Rothko name/brand that it is important for his sponsors to acquire and he doesn’t really want to demean his art by selling his soul. So, in essence, this becomes a Faustian story as Rothko wrestles with his canvases, his new assistant and his own conscience.
Rothko is played by Alfred Molina as a great bull of a man who rages and shouts, apparently convinced of his own genius but, underneath this, deeply unsettled and fearful of selling out. It is a deeply felt and technically magnificent performance which totally dominates the first half and will surely be remembered as one of the key roles which this talented actor has or will ever assume. Molina doesn’t so much play the role as inhabit it and easily conveys the impression that he is responsible for the art works we see on stage.
This is a two-handed play so it would be relatively easy for the other actor to be swamped by Molina’s tsunami of stagecraft. However, this isn’t the case. Alfred Enoch plays Ken (in the first production it was Eddie Redmayne), at first hesitant and in awe of Rothko but gradually becoming a touchstone for the artist and, by the end of the play, able to give as good as he gets. In an emotional speech which questions everything Rothko stands for and believes in, Enoch invests his character with newly found power and shows that he has matured immeasurably. This powerhouse duo of two Alfreds (what are the chances?) toss artistic arguments back and forth and, courtesy of Logan’s erudite script, examine the artist’s role in society and the human condition too.
Michael Grandage is a director of distinction and flair and proves this once again by harnessing the rhythms of the script and the power of the actors to provide a compelling stage experience for the audience. In the most thrilling scene of the play Rothko and Ken prepare a canvas with its base colour (red, naturally) and has Molina and Enoch perform a virtual ballet of synchronised movement as they do so. It would be interesting to see the actual written stage direction for this section. It is probably quite straightforward but watching this sequence again as I did (one of the blessings of online theatre is that you can rewind and rewatch) it is evident that here is a case of a director adding value; in a blur of action the two actors almost seem to become one entity at this pivotal point in the narrative. The set designed by Christopher Oram is everything you expect an artist’s studio to be, dark and shuttered from the outside world; Rothko doesn’t like natural light – he doesn’t think it’s good enough. Neil Austin’s bold lighting illuminates the developing artworks to great effect. The painting themselves, huge slabs of red (sorry magenta, crimson, maroon, etc.) and black become something mythic and as Rothko himself puts it pulse through the gloom at us. No wonder he decried the advent of pop art with its lightness of touch and apparent lack of serious purpose.
While this could never be classed as an easy watch it is, nevertheless, a rewarding one which demonstrates the power of both art and theatrical performance to thrill and challenge. In its depiction of the two men and this turning point of artistic sensibility it beautifully demonstrates the central thesis that sons must challenge fathers, the old must give way to the new and art and theatre must constantly evolve and change in order to survive – a lesson which has been all too evident as Lockdown2 comes to a close.