Wyndham’s Theatre, London – until 28 July 2018
It is no bad thing to have your stage hero effectively co-designing the set. Christopher Oram’s re-creation of Mark Rothko’s 1950s studio is a bleak box with a cluttered workbench and frames and pulleys for his vast canvases. It is dominated by the overbearing, majestic, mysteriously edgeless, tragic and challengine reds and blacks of his Seagram- project canvases. Mark Austin’s lighting design, a miracle in itself, makes them glow and threaten, palpate and shiver in just the way the artist eloquently insists in John Logan’s astonishing play.
Michael Grandage brought it first eight years ago to the Donmar, since when it has enthralled Broadway and the world. To general joy, Alfred Molina reprises the part of Rothko, more than ably partnered this time with Alfred Enoch as the skinny, intense, thoughtful young assistant Ken who is his awed skivvy. And finally, after the two years covered in this sharp 90 minutes, his conscience.
It is an eloquently entertaining duologue stretching from Nietzsche, Jung, Hamlet, Rembrandt and Turner to the emotional and spiritual point of art, its evolution from figurative to abstract, its inheritance and what Rothko calls the moment when “the child must bash the father” as his abstract-impressionists crushed the Cubists. He feels this until young Ken tells him that the pop-art movement is about “this moment and a little bit tomorrow” so he too must give way. Gracelessly.
So it could be overtalky, were it not so electrically theatrical and visual as Ken darts around stretching canvases and mixing paints. At one point the pair of them – wild in separate energy and then strangely, balletically together – prime a huge red canvas at speed to an rising operatic theme. Its emotional shape is intensely satisfying too: clashes, revelations, arguments, absurdities , passions and the perennial joyful mystery of genius. Of the way that a terrible self-absorbed curmudgeon can turn his own restless depressions and terrors into something which feeds the world’s spirit for centuries after.
“Not everyone wants art that actually hurts” protests Ken in his great diatribe against the master late on, but sometimes we need it. And it is Ken who persuades Rothko in the end to refuse the swanky, lucrative, fashionable Seagram-building money and keep the pictures – which he did, in 1959. Rothko explains why in one of the smaller but most enjoyable soliloquies in which Molina describes, with pitiless detail, the utter ghastliness – the timelessly pretentious horrific Tina-Brownery – of the smart New York restaurant for which they were commissioned.
Perfect. It is a play of fire and poetry, laughter and rage. An imagined colloquy with its own kind of genius.