Donmar Warehouse, London WC2
Opened 8 December, 2009

Visual artists are having a thin time of it at the moment on London stages. In The Line at the Arcola, Timberlake Wertenbaker shows Degas as a man conscious of artistic theory and history but quite fails to make him come alive either as a person or in fact as an artist; now in Red, John Logan falls similarly short with Mark Rothko.
In fact, Logan’s Rothko is even more arid than Wertenbaker’s Degas, who at least is allowed to show us his remarkable sense of patriotism, and is moreover dramatically pitted against another artist of some standing who nevertheless exemplifies the principle of Life in its conflicts with that of Art. Rothko here, though, has nothing except speech after impassioned speech about the intellectual grounding and the simultaneous numinousness with which he aims to imbue his most famous works, the Seagram murals. (The play is set during their painting in 1958-9.)
Moreover, the only other figure in the play, Rothko’s new assistant Ken, is given no opportunity to show his own artistic ability, preferences or, really, any character whatever, apart from a sensationalist ingredient of having as a young child found his parents murdered, so that red becomes a significant colour for him. Whoopee. Ken’s dramatic function is simply to stop the play being a solo, or indeed not a play at all but a headphone commentary at Tate Modern. Mostly, he gets to listen to Rothko; sometimes, to offer supportive musings of his own (I was reminded of the volume of essays by Samuel Beckett and others bigging up James Joyce’s then work-in-progress which ultimately became Finnegans Wake), and in the final couple of scenes he assumes the mantle of the new wave of artists supplanting Rothko and is given his own fervent diatribe which, surprise surprise, both earns him the older man’s respect and sends him out the door.
As for Rothko, the play is almost completely devoid of biography. At one point he speaks vaguely of his childhood “in Russia” (in fact, Latvia), and then remarks that his family on emigration to the U.S. settled in Portland without specifying which one (Oregon). When, in the final scene, he recounts his dining experience at the Four Seasons restaurant which led him to repudiate the commission for the murals, not only does he not mention that he was accompanied by his wife, but the play gives no indication that he is or ever was married. We are given more biographical information about Jackson Pollock than about Rothko.
Of course, it is not intended to be a biographical portrait, but rather one of the mind and spirit that created these enormous, harmonious yet warring, pulsating slabs of reds and blacks. The single moment of drama in the 100-minute play is when Rothko and Ken “prime” a huge canvas with an undercoat of red. The production must create one of these canvases each night, and I’m sure they’d fetch a few quid: never mind selling the fake Rothkos, the life-size canvases which are hauled seriatim into place on the pulley set-up which dominates upstage... theatre aficionados would shell out for a genuine painting by Alfred Molina and Eddie Redmayne, however plain. Molina fully meets the bravura demanded by the role of Rothko, and Redmayne as Ken gets to show that natural appeal he has both as a supporting player and when given a nice juicy outburst to himself. But Michael Grandage’s production is really far more than Logan’s talky yet uninformative play deserves.
Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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