By Issy Flower
A man sits alone on stage, contemplating a painting. Two hours later, the painting stares back at the artist. These form the perfect bookends to Red, a play exploring the complex, multi-layered relationship between an artist and their work, while scrutinising the many degrees of perception swirling around a theatrical performance.
At its core the play celebrates passion. Yet it remains aware of the pitfalls and hypocrisies of passion. This creates a theatrical experience that is both thrilling and intriguing, utilising the truly excellent performances from its two leads: Alfred Molina and Alfred Enoch. I saw Red, in its first revival, at Wyndham’s two years ago, and I revisited it during its broadcast in lockdown. I even follow ‘Mark Rothko’ on Twitter.
Telling the story of the famous artist, renowned for his creation of bold, abstract paintings, as he was devising murals for the Four Seasons restaurant (a commission Rothko eventually declined), the play is as much about the art of the theatre as it is about the art of painting. A scene where the stage lighting is replaced with artificial white light reminds the audience that it is not only paintings which need careful lighting and placing to, as Rothko says, ‘pulsate’. It is the theatrical piece itself. This keen awareness of metatheatricality is no fluke: it demonstrates the impact of presentation and context on all art, and the ways in which an unfriendly atmosphere like a restaurant could ruin it.
Rothko’s art however remains at the centre of the action. Scenes are dictated by the moving and rehanging of canvases, the lighting and use of a projector ensuring their pulsation for both artist and audience, blurring the lines between the two. Similarly, Molina discusses the subjectivity and glory of art whilst staring intently at the audience (or within the play, a wall of canvases), actor and playwright inviting them to respond to the art he is presenting with compassion and intelligence.
At one point the two characters ritualistically prepare the canvas by violently and joyously covering it with paint. This scene both highlights the physicality of art as opposed to the musings of the artist, and is indicative of the play as a whole. The audience is encouraged to view art as something filled with passion and joy, something they themselves are part of and can achieve, emphasising both forms’ inherent subjectivity and the problems/delights arising from these.
This subjectivity is not always successful. Although the play consistently challenges its audience by honouring and dismissing notions of art, it does only really convey one viewpoint: that of Rothko. Even when Enoch’s character challenges his ideas or Rothko is himself challenged by the emergence of pop art, all we ever get is one man’s singular vision. Sometimes this isn’t even Rothko’s, but rather the play’s author’s, John Logan, who often uses Enoch as a mouthpiece to proselytise on how Rothko was a hypocrite, or how his personality was confrontational. As a result, the audience does not become artists but an artist. A sense of realism and an opportunity to discuss conflicting concepts of art are lost.
But, as the play is inherently concerned with one man and the question of how much an artist’s ideas are tied to his paintings and vice-versa, it does not detract from the performance too greatly.
And the performances are the core of this play- at least in this production. Alfred Molina is wholly convincing and entirely present as a man consumed by passion for his work and his personal demons, ranging from sheer fury to quiet defeat, with a physicality that seems taut on a string yet can sag visibly in an instant. We are invited to share in both Rothko’s joy in demeaning other artists and to how he succumbs to his own inadequacy. During this, his intensity never wavers, and even when Rothko is at his lowest, even his despair advocates an intensity of feeling (from joy and wonder to passion and anger) refreshing for its honesty and wholly in tune with the feel of the play.
Although Enoch’s performance is less assured and occasionally verges on the hammy, throughout the show his acting strengthens and improves alongside his character, conveying the role of servant, apprentice, stooge and finally independent thinker perfectly.
The play, the production, the actors, the creative team, John Logan, Mark Rothko. All encourage you to engage with art and artists. To explore them both as human beings and artistic icons, to receive art and ask yourself who should have ownership of. These questions are sometimes given definitive answers with no room for manoeuvre by the play, but the intensity of Rothko’s character and Molina’s performance creates great drama and encourages an intelligent conversation between the audience and the piece– something that all artists aim for.
Image credit: Samantha Fulton