Finally bagging itself a West End transfer a hefty nine years after its hit run at the Donmar Warehouse, Michael Grandage’s production of John Logan’s ‘Red’ has lost none of its power over the decade.
The subject is art, and an artist: abstract expressionist Mark Rothko (played by Alfred Molina, star of the Donmar run). We meet him 1957 as the last man standing of his peers. Jackson Pollock is dead, and the pop artists are snapping at his heels. But there is always work to be done and in this case, the work is a mega-paying commission to paint a mural for the fancy new Four Seasons hotel in New York. In this, Rothko is abetted by his assistant Ken (Alfred Enoch, replacing one Eddie Redmayne, who did it at the Donmar), who we meet on his very first day at work.
Initially, he’s gobsmacked by Rothko, whose Prospero-like pronouncements, granity seriousness and almost breathtaking lack of interest in his new employee seem to mark him out as something shamanic, superhuman. As two years pass, Ken (a fictional character) grows increasingly frustrated at Rothko’s hermetically sealed world, his insistence on anguish in his work, his staring at canvasses for days to ‘find’ the painting and his increasing obsession with black as a metaphor for annihilation.
US playwright Logan’s short, intense play has its faults, notably a rather American tendency towards excessively mannered dialogue (an early discussion of Nietzsche between the two could practically have been lifted from an episode of ‘Frazier’). And Ken has a tragic backstory that’s almost impressive in its contrivance.
But for the most part, ‘Red’ remains pretty special. The dialogue has its faults, but the remarkable, elemental way that the two men discuss colour is not one of them (‘One day the black with swallow the red’, declares a fearful Rothko, early on).
And Michael Grandage’s production is just magnificent, the stage dominated by hulking, unworldly ochre paintings (designer Christopher Oram is on the form of his life). In its most iconic scene, the two men prime a huge canvas with a rusty blood-coloured paint and their intense physical effort gives a hint at the agonies Rothko insists on inflicting upon himself.
The play’s central debate is less whether Rothko is a sellout for accepting the Four Seasons commission, more whether he has let down his art by pledging it to an environment unsuited to it. It is a genuinely nuanced argument, and the constant palpable presence of Rothko’s pain – as physically manifested in the canvases – is what gives ‘Red’ its bite. The tortured artist is a naff cliché, but Molina’s towering performance avoids tropes – his Rothko barely has emotions at all, seemingly wholly devoted to his work, and yet clearly his entire life is defined by an existential dread and his desire to impose order upon it.
Despite heavy foreshadowing, ‘Red’ refrains from making the leap to Rothko’s death, and ends on an ambivalent note that contains a small vindication for the artist. Though in fact, the true last scene is not a verbal one. It’s a painting, spectacularly lit by Neil Austin, that looks genuinely alive, bars of black with two pulsing red strips of colour like a gateway to somewhere far beyond. It is more powerful than words.