Set in 1958, a working art studio serves as a backdrop to the unstable relationship between an established artist, the iconic abstract expressionist Mark Rothko; his young assistant, Ken; and the artistic and philosophical debate that is Red, by John Logan. Having had a revealing discussion and a sneak preview with the cast (Ajay Stevenson and Jono Lake) and directors (Lara Tysseling and Tom Tolond), we discovered that there was far more to Rothko’s paintings than meets the eye…
What made you want to direct Red?
Lara: I thought it would be a waste to not take advantage of the opportunity to work with such talented actors and set designers. As a play Red was the only one that, as soon as I read it, stood out to me. It had a real depth to it and I fell in love with it immediately.
Tom: I saw the play in the West End with Eddie Redmayne and it was one of the best things I’ve ever seen. Then putting it on was quite a strange coincidence as Lara and I were in a play together and whilst talking backstage we eventually realised that we both wanted to direct this play called Red.
Had you heard of Mark Rothko before choosing this play?
Lara: I hadn’t actually heard of him before but I did recognise his paintings. They are the kind with the block colours that you see as a kid and you think; I could do that! But hopefully this play shows that not just anyone could paint them.
Did you do any research on the man, Mark Rothko, and his art before beginning rehearsals?
Tom: I did, I went to his mural at the Tate Modern and a couple of lectures, read a few books and watched documentaries about him.
Lara: Yes, I found that the play reflects a lot of beliefs that Rothko had. At one point he says that ten percent of art is putting paint on a canvas as he believes that many elements go into the creation of art; it doesn’t just have to be aesthetically pleasing, which is what he believes pop art to be all about. There are also so many allusions to so many different things such as different painters like Caravaggio, Michael Angelo and Matisse.
Could you tell us a bit about what the play is about?
Ajay: A quote from Rothko himself summarises his philosophy on life; ‘there’s only one thing in life that I fear my friend, that one day the black will swallow the red.’ Rage, passion, inspiration and integrity are the four words which I feel sum up the play perfectly.
Lara: The play explores the transition from abstract expressionism into pop art. Also it shows the movements of art and its relationship to capitalism and consumerism. Although, it is also about the purpose of life to a certain extent. It does explore some really difficult questions.
What are the major themes or questions that the play explores?
Ajay: One prominent theme is the whole idea of fatherhood and inspiring the next generation. Rothko is this fifty something year old man who is very stuck in his own ways, but the whole play revolves around the invasion of pop art, with works such as the soup cans and comic books, and Ken is there to question Rothko’s reaction against this movement.
Jono: Abstract expressionism, when Rothko was first up and coming, took over cubism. The play demonstrates how Rothko was then in turn threatened by people like Andy Warhol and how he didn’t like that. He stomped to death cubism but now he is not prepared to let it happen to himself, or his movement.
Ajay: It’s a very personal story between Rothko and Ken. It’s great but it is also a tragic one too. These two men both benefit from each others knowledge of art but then it does not quite work as they are from different generations.
One of the play’s central discussions is the exploration of the question: ‘What is art?’ What would you consider as art?
Tom: Well I would always ask the question back. It depends what you say art is. Is art something that just happens to exist on a wall or is art something that can be studied or looked at for all time? It’s like asking the question, ‘What is red?’. Is it a colour or is it more than that? So do I consider it as art? Maybe I do, maybe I don’t. I’m going to have to remain mysterious on that!
Would you deem Rothko’s work as art?
Ajay: In a way art reflects your surroundings and your history which is what Rothko does as well. He comes over as a Russian Jew; he’s had a very traumatic life, which is reflected by his use of the colour red. A lot of anger and passion goes into creating his paintings.
Lara: I think he said somewhere that he took around fifty years to paint one of his paintings so he doesn’t just stand there and paint it he uses everything he has ever experienced. Some people see just a black square and a red square and say how can that be art? But as people were so interested, and brought Rothko’s work, it questions people’s perceptions of what art should be.
What will happen to the paintings that are produced throughout the course of the play?
Jono: I’d really like to keep them! Not sure if we are allowed to though.
Lara: Jono reckons we could just try to sell them on and pass them off for originals!
Where there any major challenges you had to overcome to put on the play?
Tom: A lot of people will come to watch the play without knowing who Mark Rothko was, so it is important to make sure that there is the understanding of who he is and what he was about.
Lara: Making Ajay’s portrayal of Mark Rothko, a massive iconic figure, real, rather than a caricature, is also a huge feat.
What makes it different from other plays at The Nottingham New Theatre?
Tom: It’s the first ever all male two-hander. Also it’s got a very tangible element to it, as the actors actually make canvases and paint pictures on stage.
Why do you think the students of Nottingham should go and see Red?
Jono: It has elements of history of art, American history, and philosophy, so it has references to all sorts of different degree subjects and we believe that it’s not just interesting for people that like theatre. The quality of our productions at The Nottingham New Theatre is really extremely high and so it would be a shame if it was not publicised outside as well as inside the University; we are aiming to promote the play around town as well as on campus.
Lara: And it’s only bloody £4, you know what I mean?!
Images by Tom Tolond
Red by John Logan will run at The Nottingham New Theatre from the 27th – 2nd March. For ticket information go to: https://www.facebook.com/events/164688653679374/?fref=ts
The production will also be holding a fundraiser: if they reach the total of £75, Ajay (playing Mark Rothko) will shave his head! Details here: https://www.facebook.com/events/496373343732683/