Tuesday, December 15, 2009
Red at the Donmar Warehouse
John Logan’s play, Red, is more successful than most in translating the world of visual art to the stage and in achieving a workable balance between the said and the shown.
In order to explore the creative drive of the abstract expressionist Mark Rothko he employs a device that might have come across as rather mechanical were it not for the assured performances of the two actors. Logan’s play takes the form of a two-hander: a series of, often very one-sided conversations, between Rothko and his young assistant, played by Alfred Molina and Eddie Redmayne. It could all too easily have felt clunky and forced, but the production manages to avoid straying too far into the terrain of cliché.
It’s 1958 and Mark Rothko is at work on a series of paintings he has been commissioned to produce for the Four Seasons Restaurant of the Seagram Building. The play is set in Rothko’s Bowery studio where natural light has been banished and great, shimmering squares of red dominate the set. Rothko badgers and berates the younger man, lecturing him and dismissing his ideas - dismissing his existence. He talks constantly about art. There is no other. Art is everything. He expresses a hope that his paintings will put the wealthy diners off their dinner and eventually turns down the commission, returning the not inconsiderable fee.
Logan’s Rothko is a rather unsympathetic character. His capacious intellect and his consuming passion are coupled with a "titanic self-absorption." As written, he’s a bully and, at times, a bore. He takes pride in explaining how his generation of artists stomped on the cubists but then bristles at the thought of sharing gallery space with the emerging wave of pop artists. (The obligatory quip is made about Warhol’s work and the unlikelihood that anyone will care about it in the future).
Michael Grandage’s production grapples with one of the main hurdles in any play concerned with matters of art. Painting and sculpting – the processes of art – are not easy to stage in any plausible way (the charcoal sketch scene in The Pitmen Painters a notable exception). In a wonderfully physical scene, Grandage has Rothko and his assistant prep one of the large canvases, splashing red paint about the place until the floor looks - aptly as it turns out for the younger man' parents were stabbed to death - like a crime scene and their arms and faces are coated in the splatter of the of abattoir.
The performances go a good way to papering over the gaps and cracks in the writing. Alfred Molina, stocky and shaven-headed, is a necessarily dominant Rothko, bullish and aggressive, using his intellect as a weapon, yet not uncharismatic, not without charm. There is a bright flare of humanity and humour in him, though it’s often well hidden. Eddie Redmayne is the perfect foil to Molina. Wiry and wired, for much of the early part of the play he’s little more than a sounding board for Rothko’s tirades, but Redmanye has a way of responding with intelligence and fire, qualities evident even when he’s silent. Eventually he grows increasingly intolerant of Rothko’s indifference to him and his determination to be significant to the detriment of all else. He rebels, he bites back, and, in doing so, becomes the catalyst for Rothko’s rejection of the Seagram commission.
Christopher Oram’s set, warmly lit by Neil Austin, recreates Rothko’s studio: cavernous and concrete-walled, spattered and practical, complete with the pulleys the artist used to manoeuvre his large canvases into place.
Logan’s play is undoubtedly a polished piece, composed with care; but while it’s neither as cumbersome as Timberlake Wertenbaker’s recent The Line (a play about Edgar Degas and Suzanne Valadon), nor as overwrought as Dea Loher’s Land Without Words, which also channelled Rothko, it’s just too neat a package - it’s an essay on art given flesh and voice, but though Molina and Redmayne do much to counter this, the play leaves the heart and the gut largely untroubled.
Reviewed for musicOMH