Playwright John Logan choose Mark Rothko’s late 1950s colour-field paintings, created for the Seagram building in New York, as the subject of his play Tony Award-winning ‘Red’. First produced by the Donmar Warehouse in 2009, the theatre’s former Artistic Director, Michael Grandage, returns to direct this production at the West End’s Wyndham’s Theatre.
Famously, Mark Rothko dropped the ‘Seagram Commission’, returned his advance of the $35,000 he was promised (roughly $300,000 in today’s money) and refused to hang his work in the luxurious new building in Midtown, Manhattan. Nobody knows for sure why Rothko did this but one can assume that he began to care for his most recent paintings and simply couldn’t take the money and run without feeling he had done a disservice to his work.
John Logan works backwards from this moment and invents young art student, Ken, played by Alfred Enoch, whose time as Rothko’s assistant and figurative whipping boy creates a dialogue, which leads to that real-life decision.
However, the contrived nature of Ken’s character, his romantic ideals and tragic backstory, make the dialogue rather unimaginative and predictable. It appears as if Logan has simply lifted Rothko’s ideas about Nietzsche and Jung from books and essays and their reiteration is to remind the artist that he shouldn’t sell out his work.
Not having anything original to say is what makes Enoch’s performance slightly two-dimensional and cartoonish. Contrast this with Alfred Molina’s brilliant performance as Mark Rothko and one can understand how most of what is good about ‘Red’ comes from the memory of the artist himself. Molina has clearly drawn his physicality and manners from pictures of Rothko and from his art; whereas Enoch has only what is in the script to work with. Logan’s script never really exploits good source material but simply flatters our idea of what Mark Rothko might have been like.
To be fair, it is only natural to imagine what kind of person or drama might be behind the colour-fields – they are like walking past a house and seeing the curtains drawn with just a little movement behind them – but what Logan imagines only rebuilds what an educated audience probably think they know about the artist already.
This re-creation of Rothko beside the creation of his art is the narrative arch of ‘Red’; after he has called up his agent to drop the Seagram commission, Ken turns to him and says ‘Now, you are Mark Rothko’. But we don’t know that that is true because we are never truly shown Mark Rothko, at least as he existed in his art.
This is a shame because Christopher Oram’s set-design (long-time collaborator of Grandage) is calling for the play to connect with the non-mimetic ideas in Rothko’s paintings. The theatre and therefore the limits of the play world are clearly visible beyond the walls of Rothko’s studio. Scenes are entirely lit by free standing lights in the studio and there is no lighting grid working above the stage. At one point, Ken turns on the theatre’s worklights to destroy the imagined border of the play and our connection to the paintings on stage, as if to prove that the outwardly unreasonably demands of expressionist art are no more than the willing suspension of disbelief that we eagerly give to drama on the stage.
But when the borders are returned, the paintings are merely used as back drops of Ken and Rothko’s conversations, more giving away their content than informing our reception.
For the most part, ‘Red’ is a display of what we might fancy Rothko to have been like and not an attempt to bring Rothko to the stage. It is true that there is a character called Mark Rothko but there is no Rothko.
Words, Will Herbert @billiamherbert
Red is playing at Wyndham’s Theatre until the 28th July. For more information and tickets, see: http://www.wyndhamstheatre.co.uk/