Grand statements and splatters of paint were flying through the air last night as Alfred Molina revisited the role of Mark Rothko in the West End revival of John Logan’s Red, which first premiered at London’s Donmar Warehouse in 2009 before transferring directly to Broadway and winning a clutch of Tonys.
Plays about art tend to be either preachy or ranty, and there’s quite a bit of both in Red, which is set in New York between 1958 and 1959 when Rothko was grappling with the doomed commission to paint a series of murals for the Four Seasons restaurant in the new Seagram building on Fifth Avenue. “Let it pulsate! Let it work on you,” he urges new assistant Ken, played by Alfred Enoch, as the nervous young apprentice cowers before a giant canvas. “Closer. Let it spread out! Let it wrap its arms around you!”
But despite such hyperbolic lessons in art appreciation and an abundance of portentous declarations about the nature of art (Apollonian versus Dionysian, anyone?), this new iteration of the 90-minute two-hander is carried by a combination of superlative staging and strength of performances.
Against all odds, the tormented hero cliché is trounced by the sheer force of Molina’s bellowing, bellicose Rothko, while Enoch, occupying the Ken role originally played by Eddie Redmayne, convincingly and grippingly evolves from trembling acolyte into his master’s devastatingly coruscating critic.
The other star is Michael Grandage’s brilliantly dynamic production itself. Set in a gorily bespattered replica of Rothko’s Bowery Studio (designed by Christopher Oram), the sheer physical labour of making art has been so embedded into the enactment of the play that often the most revealing and expressive parts are when there is no dialogue at all. Frames are banged into shape, paint mixed and canvases stretched and hauled up and down using a recreated version of Rothko’s specially devised pulley system. In one of the most powerful scenes a Gluck aria blasts out as the duo work in frenzied synchronicity to cover a canvas in rusty red primer. The intensity of this paint-sodden ritual is more effective than any speech about the nature of their relationship to each other, as well as with Rothko’s art and its production.
In a question-and-answer session afterwards the two Alfreds—identified, for ease of communication, as ‘Fred’ (Molina) and ‘Alfie’ (Enoch)—both agreed that the paintings themselves, as they moved around the set and were brought to glowing life by Neil Austin’s lighting, were very much characters in their own right. (They were also quick to confirm that the production and its props have the blessing of the Rothko Estate.) And how does ‘Fred’ Molina feel about playing Mark Rothko again, after nearly a decade? “I feel I understand Rothko much more now; I’m a lot more sympathetic to his dilemma and his anguish,” he said. “The murals have a resonance and a power that I wasn't fully appreciative of nine years ago.”
- Red is at the Wyndham's Theatre in London until 28 July.