Though figuratively they may speak volumes, paintings don’t tend to literally speak for themselves. How daunting, then, to build stage directions, set pieces, lighting plans, entire character arcs and – crucially – meaningful dialogue about them for the stage. On seeing RED for the first time in 2009, Michael Billington was apprehensive: “plays about painters are fraught with difficulty. Either the hero preaches about art without practising it, or the Bohemian lifestyle supersedes the work” . Thankfully, the combined creativity of writer John Logan and director Michael Grandage avoids both of these pitfalls.
RED has taken an unorthodox tour over the last decade, beginning off-West End at the Donmar Warehouse in 2009, transferring to Broadway, and only now coming to the West End as a revival in 2018. Winner of six Tony awards (including Best Play and Best Direction of a Play), the play is a ninety-minute, interval-free crash course in Mark Rothko – an artist about whom I knew precisely nothing and whose name I now keep seeing everywhere – and the creative quandaries that confound painters of all kinds.
The drama starts in the late fifties, just as postmodernism is about to burst onto the scene like an outrageously irreverent party guest. Rothko has accepted a commission to paint a series of murals for the Four Seasons restaurant in New York. An abstract expressionist who reached the height of his fame on the New York post-war art scene alongside Jackson Pollock, Rothko’s influence permeated virtually every cultural realm in addition to the art world. If quizzed on his artistic trademarks, I would say he dealt principally in looming geometrical shapes, layers upon layers of paint, and a great deal of anguish.
Alfred Molina, who originated the role in 2009, is already in character for the fifteen minutes of pre-show chatter and buzz as the audience files into the theatre, back turned, fortified against distraction. The studio is a well-worn, one-room monastery where instead of incense, paint fumes abound. It’s comparable to a place of worship not simply because of the single-minded devotion to something transcendental. Like a chapel or temple, it comes across as a sacred space where dichotomies mysteriously intersect in peace: life and death, transience and eternity, idealism and pragmatism, abstraction and forensic attention to detail. Enormous canvases block out any windows onto the rest of the city; as Molina’s tense, stony posture suggests from the outset, the studio is also a prison of Rothko’s own design. Speaking of which, it isn’t difficult to see how RED nabbed the Tony award for Best Scenic Design — the literal distress of the off-white, chipped paint of the apartment walls matches the emotional distress that pulses throughout the play.
So then, what can the theatre say about painting that the medium cannot say for itself? In one of Rothko’s many grand monologues, he schools his new assistant Ken (Alfred Enoch), and by extension the audience, in the underrated value of intertextuality: “You cannot be an artist until you are civilized.” That is, you are not allowed a license to retreat from the world to create new art until you’ve spent a sufficient amount of time participating in what it’s had to offer thus far. The play’s story may be confined wholly to Rothko’s studio, but the references to different media outside of it are abundant and fast flowing:
ROTHKO: Byron? Wordsworth? Aeschylus? Turgenev? Sophocles? Schopenhauer? Shakespeare? Hamlet? At least Hamlet, please God! Quote me Hamlet. […] You have a lot to learn, young man. Philosophy. Theology. Literature. Poetry. Drama. History. Archaeology. Anthropology. Mythology. Music. These are your tools as much as brush and pigment.
Rather than entering the studio to worship at a monolithic altar of painting, it should be treated as a melting pot of literary, musical and philosophical influences. Indeed, I haven’t read a play as an isolated piece of text since university, but I can imagine RED would be a treat in its own right just on the page. Molina and Enoch’s delivery turns the play’s musings and debates it into what I can only describe as an epic poem for the Beat generation, with badinage and interrogation, lyricism and wit, and stories within stories. Just look at this intricately choreographed dance around a single colour:
ROTHKO: Dresden firestorm at night. The sun in Rousseau, the flag in Delacroix, the robe in El Greco.
KEN: A rabbit’s nose. An albino’s eyes. A parakeet.
ROTHKO: Florentine marble. Atomic flash. Nick yourself shaving, blood in the Barbasol.
KEN: The ruby slippers. Technicolor. That phone to the Kremlin on the president’s desk.
ROTHKO: Russian flag, Nazi flag, Chinese flag.
KEN: Persimmons. Pomegranates. Redlight district. Red tape. Rouge.
ROTHKO: Lava. Lobsters. Scorpions.
KEN: Stop sign. Sports car. A blush.
ROTHKO: Viscera. Flame. Dead Fauvists.
KEN: Traffic lights. Titian hair.
ROTHKO: Slash your wrists. Blood in the sink.
KEN: Santa Claus.
ROTHKO: Satan. (Beat.) So … red.
So far, so enriching. But even the most beautiful words can sour if left to run amok for ninety uninterrupted minutes. Outside of filmed drama, which has the advantage of montages overlaid with appropriate instrumentals (think Jack Dawson sketching Rose in Titanic, or Colin Firth’s Vermeer working on Girl with a Pearl Earring), or literature, which through the means of lyricism and colourful abstraction can leave such moments to the reader’s imagination, it is extraordinarily difficult to capture the ecstatic, otherworldly moment of total immersion in the artistic process, in real time, in under five minutes; RED pulls it off. A well-executed exploration of artistic ideals is one thing, but credit is due to Logan for invigorating his scenes of extensive dialogue with the closest a play about art can get to an action sequence.
Cavendish’s take on “the canvas scene” is that Rothko and Ken, employer and employee, crusader and sidekick, “achieve a mute solidarity as they vigorously prime a blank canvas, spattering paint like blood in an abattoir, toiling to obliterate the white” . The words “mute” and “solidarity” make for an intriguing juxtaposition. In spoken dialogue, Rothko and Ken are sparring rivals who might not be out of place in a Greek tragedy; in reverent silence before the altar of the canvas, they harmonise. Such solidarity in muteness takes the archetype of “solitary artist” to the next level — the only way to get multiple artists to co-work or even to co-exist without anarchy ensuing is to keep them silent. By the end of the aria, the air in the theatre was electric.
It can’t be a walk in the park to be the only other actor alongside as seasoned a veteran of the stage as Alfred Molina, but Alfred Enoch takes over the role of Ken as originated by Eddie Redmayne with affable capability. Enoch has a knack for playing deferent shadows, the Nick Carraways of the world: more three-dimensional than an everyman, but nowhere near as self-possessed as a character like Rothko, who takes centre stage even when absent from it. His fictional Ken is cautiously enters the studio as an intern, someone initially relegated to the tedium of stretching canvasses, mixing paints, cleaning brushes, and going on regular excursions for the three c’s: coffee, cigarettes, and Chinese food. The most exciting thing he is allowed to do, artistically speaking, is lay down a primer of ground colour on each canvas before his anti-mentor can begin the artistic process in earnest. Afraid of putting a foot wrong, Ken answers Rothko’s questions as affirmatively and concisely as possible to avoid giving anything of himself away. As two years whirl by in narrative time, he progresses to a spiritual apprentice, confident enough in navigating Rothko’s mercurial behaviour to challenge his (many) ideological standpoints.
Some critics failed to see past the “immense convenience” of Ken’s eerie backstory — in her review for The Stage, Natasha Tripney writes that “Ken’s murdered parents as a plot point, the red of their blood staining his memory, feels even more contrived on second viewing” . Contrived writing? Yes, that’s a valid perspective. Could Ken’s character have sufficed without it? Easily. But it doesn’t deserve to be written off so quickly. Not only is it arguably the most turning point in his character arc, the first time Rothko pushes him to the point of real vulnerability by giving the darkest part of himself away — the moment is also worthy of appreciation on a level of pure performance. Enoch strips his admittedly out-of-place monologue of all such contrivance and imbues it with authenticity (the result of which is that I will never look at snow through a bedroom window in the same way again). He goes on to subvert his own stereotype of tragic orphanhood by being unable to – and ultimately declining to – be taken entirely under Rothko’s wing.
Art about art is inherently risky. From the nib of some lesser pen, this could have been ninety of the most interminable minutes of audiences’ lives, a self-indulgent, stultifying disaster doomed to die a quiet death. Rather than relying on the air of mystery around a troubled genius to do the dramatic legwork, or overstuffing the script with proclamations about what art definitively is or is not, the creative team behind RED have shown that all you need are two actors in a studio, ninety minutes, a canvas with an undercoat, a careful selection of overhead lights, a willingness to let contradictions and clashing ideals intermingle, and you can journey down an endless, ever-shifting road of ideas. Almost ten years on, like the revered paintings that Rothko compels us to perceive as quasi-living entities in their own right, RED continues to capture attention long after its inception.
RED runs at Wyndham’s Theatre in London, until 28 July.
Billington, Michael. First Review. The Guardian
<https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2009/dec/09/theatre-review-red-donmar-warehouse> Accessed 19 May 2018.
Billington, Michael. Second Review. The Guardian <https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2018/may/15/red-review-rothko-wyndhams-london-michael-grandage-alfred-molina> Accessed 19 May 2018.
Cavendish, Dominic. The Telegraph
<https://www.telegraph.co.uk/theatre/what-to-see/red-wyndhams-theatre-review-joy-have-artful-modern-classic-back/> Accessed 19 May 2018.
Smith, Zadie. ‘Man versus Corpse’ Feel Free. London: Penguin Random House (2018).
Swain, Marianka. The Arts Desk
<https://theartsdesk.com/theatre/red-wyndhams-theatre-mark-rothko-drama-paints-vivid-picture> Accessed 19 May 2018.
Taylor, Paul. The Independent
<https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/theatre-dance/reviews/red-review-alfred-molina-michael-grandage-mark-rothko-wyndhams-theatre-a8353786.html> Accessed 19 May 2018.
Tripney, Natasha. The Stage
<https://www.thestage.co.uk/reviews/2018/red-review-alfred-molina-wyndhams-theatre-london/> Accessed 19 May 2018.
<https://www.thestage.co.uk/features/interviews/2018/alfred-molina-interview-michael-grandage-red-wyndhams-theatre-west-end/> Accessed 19 May 2018.