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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Donmar Warehouse       Winter 2009-2010

John Logan's new play uses an episode from the life of American painter Mark Rothko, when he accepted and then rejected a major commission to provide paintings for an upscale New York restaurant, as the setting for an exploration into the passions and commitment of any artist.

And it is in communicating that passion, and the way art really matters to some people, that the play's power lies.

Eliminating all mention of Rothko's wife, children and outside life, Logan invents a younger artist hired as the master's assistant and general dogsbody, giving Rothko the opportunity to teach, argue and generally express his thoughts and feelings.

(Short pause for a reminder: flourishing from the 1940s to the 1960s, Rothko is known primarily for very large paintings that typically place a hollow rectangle in one shade of red or brown against a background of a different shade. As the play makes clear, his goal was to have the colours subtly bounce off each other in a living way.)

It has to be said that the playwright's dramaturgy is not particularly strong or original. The younger man is obviously just a technical device, to give Rothko someone to talk to (or at).

And, given that one of Rothko's lectures is on the need of one artistic generation to displace another, it is inevitable that the lad eventually rebels and pours out his rejection of much of his mentor's values (though it might be a bit of a surprise to have pop art be the trigger for the worm turning).

Logan probably chose Rothko because the painter was untypically intellectual and methodical, and thus more likely to be able to express and explain himself, and the play holds us by what Rothko has to say, and his passionate dedication to his art.

With open contempt for what he calls 'interior decoration' and the cheery quality of pop art, he insists 'I'm not here to make pretty pictures,' but to find ways to make two-dimensional colours on canvas come alive and demand the viewer's attention.

That's why he rejects the restaurant commission, because the diners wouldn't be focussed on the paintings - which, in his view, makes them unworthy of the opportunity.

Because Logan's Rothko is so clear and eloquent at expressing himself, even the artistically illiterate amongst us can understand what he is saying (and, incidentally, view the next Rothko we see in a museum differently) and be caught up in the excitement and fire of his words.

And that experience is what makes the play very much worth seeing.

The playwright obviously depends on the actor portraying Rothko, and Alfred Molina captures the character, complete with egotism and blind spots, but also with a fully understood artistic vision and a palpable dedication to his ideas and ideals.

The other character is little more than a feed to Rothko, but Eddie Redmayne fleshes him out nicely, so that his big rebellious outburst doesn't come from nowhere.

Michael Grandage's direction and Christopher Oram's design capture both the claustrophobic quality of the artist's studio and the way in which it is an entire and self-sufficient world.

Gerald Berkowitz

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