What makes a great artist? Is it his passion for his art? His philosophy of life? His overpowering ego? In RED, an intelligent literate two character play by John Logan that has been brought to our shores via the Donmar Warehouse and a slew of American producers now at the Golden Theatre we get a glimpse into what made Mark Rothko, abstract expressionist, click.
As the Master Rothko (Alfred Molina) sits with his back to the audience contemplating one of the large red and black canvases that has been commissioned by the Four Seasons Restaurant, Eddie Redmayne (Ken) the apprentice enters the studio where the work is to be finished. We never do find out how he was hired or why Rothko chose this particular person to work with and I thought momentarily that through the mere power of his mind Rothko has summoned this imaginary person into his life to argue and philosophize about his feelings on art, artists and his future. After all he was a difficult person and not many would suffer two years worth of working for him.
Molina and Redmayne fiercely attack their roles and powerful pulsating performances are delivered by both, but the play has some shortcomings – particularly in the stretched beyond belief back story of the young gofer Ken.
Overall the dialogue is sharp and strong and sometimes funny in this bio-drama and keeps the audience’s attention throughout its ninety minutes playing time. I especially enjoyed Rothko’s description of the clientele, service, noise and natural light (which he hated) at the Four Seasons after dining there where his paintings are supposed to live on in posterity. Rothko thought he deserved a temple to display his art. He got a restaurant. And a lot of money.
He was worried about the newer non-serious artists arriving on the scene. And we get barbs about “soup can” and “comic book” artists – Warhol and Lichtenstein. He pontificates to the point of exhaustion when finally Ken fights back and more than holds his own against the tyrannical Rothko. It’s a battle of the old verses the new as Ken is also an artist but never has the courage to show the Master his work.
Director, Michael Grandage has staged RED beautifully. As the two men lower and hoist the huge paintings underscored by original music by Adam Cork and bathed in subtle lighting by Neil Austin we get to see the artist at work, culminating in the frenzied priming of a canvas with maroon paint by the two men with a classical aria fueling their energy and passion which leaves Ken’s splashed tee shirt looking like a Jackson Pollock original – a rival not looked upon favorably by Rothko.
But for all the talk about what lies beneath the creation of Rothko’s abstract expressionistic art and the intellectualness behind its creation and how it must pulsate for the public those paintings leave me cold. The direct opposite can be said about the play.
www.redonbroadway.com Photo: Johan Persson