The Theatreguide.London Review
Wyndham's Theatre Spring-Summer 2018
Two men stand around talking about art.
The most exciting thing we see them do comes about halfway through the ninety minute play, when they work together in a frenzy slapping the base colour on a large canvas for a painting to be completed later. And then they stand around talking about art some more.
But playwright John Logan makes the discussion so clear that even the artistically illiterate among us can follow it, and actors Alfred Molina and Alfred Enoch and director Michael Grandage show us that what is being talked about really, really matters to these two.
And so it matters to us, and two men standing around talking about art becomes dramatic.
The elder of the two characters is American abstract expressionist Mark Rothko (1903-1970) and the younger his assistant, charged with mixing paints, cleaning brushes and going for coffee.
Logan catches them in 1958 when Rothko is working on a major commission, a series of large canvasses offering variations on a theme of thick rough stripes against a contrasting background.
With an interested and sufficiently educated audience in the boy, he expounds on his theories of art, his opinions of other artists past and present, and his ideas of what he wants his paintings to do to a viewer. And the boy, while largely deferential, gives as good as he gets, questioning and sometimes challenging the master.
Red debuted as recently as 2009, in a production at the small Donmar theatre directed by Grandage and starring Alfred Molina and Eddie Redmayne. Grandage and Molina return here, with Alfred Enoch as the boy, and the play has subtly shifted.
At the Donmar Alfred Molina's embodiment of Rothko's intellect, intensity and passion was overpowering, and the play seemed all about this portrait.
Molina may have mellowed his portrayal this time around, or maybe it is just that we are not quite so physically close to him. While it remains an intense and impressive characterisation, we are more aware of what is being talked about than just the talker.
The idea that an artist – at least an intellectual and self-aware one like Rothko – passionately cares about art, has reasons for what he does with paint and canvas, and can explain and justify them, may be new to many. And the convincing and dramatic presentation of that news is theatrically engrossing.
In Rothko's case – or at least John Logan's Rothko – the artist could see large swaths of contrasting colours bouncing off each other and creating a hint of movement and even life, and fought to enable others to see that.
In a sequence that typically went by unnoticed nine years ago, Rothko asks the assistant what colour a painting is and gets the answer Red.
There follows a rapid-fire exchange between the two in which they catalogue red things – roses, fire hydrants and so on – until we realise that even to our untrained eyes all those things are different colours that 'red' is not sufficient to describe.
Nine years ago Eddie Redmayne let the younger guy seem little more than a straight man and feed, asking the questions and making the comments that allowed Molina's Rothko to respond at length.
Alfred Enoch creates a more forceful and developed character, not just in challenging Rothko but in presenting the younger man's own values and views as legitimate alternatives to the elder's.
With Alfred Molina tempering his characterisation, and director Grandage keeping everything together, Red is now a play about art and not just one artist.
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