“The overmantels—those paintings doomed to become decoration,” spits Alfred Molina’s Mark Rothko in Red, John Logan’s 2009 play about the legendary abstract expressionist and his tortured soul. For him, commodifying art into a bitesize conversation-starter is a heinous crime. An outrage. An abomination. But, ironically enough, that’s exactly what happens in Logan’s play, a slick, ninety-minute two-hander that oozes sophistication, but ultimately flatters to deceive. Rothko and his art are superficially packaged up and sold as intellectual, after-dinner ice-breaker material.
Red imagines a series of formulaic confrontations between Rothko and his young assistant Ken (Alfred Enoch—Dean Thomas in the Harry Potter films) during the late 1950s, while Rothko is working on a commission to paint a series of murals for the salubrious Four Seasons restaurant in Manhattan’s brand new Seagram Building—a commission he famously turned his back on. Some of the murals now hang in Tate Modern.
There are five scenes, and they all follow roughly the same pattern: Rothko and Ken pose and postulate for a bit about art, Ken says something stupid, Rothko explodes into a furious rant. Repeat. There’s a bucket-load of impressive monologues, but precious little genuine drama and even less genuine insight into Rothko or his work. It’s only when Ken confronts his employer about the morality of displaying art in an uber-expensive restaurant where only rich folk will see it that Logan’s play shows sparks of life.
“Rothko and his art are superficially packaged up and sold as intellectual, after-dinner ice-breaker material”
At least Michael Grandage’s award-winning production, returning to London for the first time since its 2009 Donmar Warehouse premiere, looks great. Long-term collaborator and life-partner Christopher Oram recreates Rothko’s expansive Bowery studio on the Wyndham’s stage. Three high, peeling walls, spattered with red paint. An enormous, rolling easel. A record player cranking out classical music. And, stacked against the walls, several enormous Rothko replicas—vast squares of ruby, magenta, ochre, vermillion, scarlet. A million shades of red. They’re not the real thing, but they’ve still got a palpable resonance. “They ebb and flow and shift, gently pulsating,” remarks Rothko. Under Neil Austin’s dusky lighting, they really do.
“If I were to compare Logan’s play to a colour, it certainly wouldn’t be anything as passionate and pulsating as Rothko red”
Logan’s play is also elevated by two fine performances from Molina and Enoch. Molina’s Rothko—bespectacled, bald as an egg, voice like a rasp—is a relentless egotist, spiralling into angry, articulate outbursts at the drop of a hat. Enoch’s Ken is lumbered with a clunky backstory and has less verbiage to sink his teeth into, but when he finally snaps, railing against Rothko’s self-absorption, his conceit, his lack of faith in humanity and his sneering attitude towards pop art, it’s thoroughly cathartic. Grandage’s fluid direction keeps them both busy—stretching canvases, applying primer, mixing paints, changing records as they bounce off each other.
Stylish though Grandage and Oram’s director-designer double-act is, though, it’s just a lick of paint on top. For the most part, Red offers little dramatic sustenance, merely piggybacking on Rothko’s renown. If I were to compare Logan’s play to a colour, it certainly wouldn’t be anything as passionate and pulsating as Rothko red. It’s too cerebral, too above-the-shoulders, too superficial, too show-off, too essayist. A titillating sketch masquerading as a masterpiece. Art reduced to chatter. An overmantel.
Elephant rating: 🐘🐘 (2/5)
All photos by Johan Persson
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