The Nottingham New Theatre auditorium has been a closed set since Monday, as this week the stage has been transformed into an artist’s New York studio for Red; the Tony Award winning 2010 play by John Logan about the painter Mark Rothko. Continuing in the New Theatre tradition of two-handers, this perfectly staged production is a captivating two hour piece of theatre which examines the role of the artist in a changing world, and discusses the power of colour to move and inspire us.
Spanning two years (1958-9) the play concerns Rothko’s relationship with a fictional assistant, Ken, as he works to produce a set of paintings for the newly opened Four Seasons restaurant. It is a classic story of student and teacher, which educates the audience as well. We are treated to a series of monologues and discussions on philosophy and art history, and are required to question and learn along with the characters.
The play is also a beautiful examination of Rothko’s work. His existence is shown to be a struggle between the red that represents life, vitality and significance, and the black that means death and anonymity.
Difficult and complex themes are handled with sophistication and understanding. Presented in a convincing and engaging way by two directors (Lara Tysseling and Tom Tolond) who have managed to find one coherent voice, Red could have been a two hour art history lecture but is never dull.
The actors however, are what make this production come alive. Both deliver completely unselfconscious performances and fill the space with their energy. Ajay Stevenson is extraordinary as Mark Rothko. He embodies this middle-aged man, both physically and vocally, to such an extent that you forget you are watching a student performer. When he speaks, you want to listen and learn. There is an eagerness to learn and please in Ken at the beginning of the play that perhaps Jono Lake does not completely convey, however his performance gains momentum and his challenges to his mentor are fantastic to watch.
The paint-spattered set makes for an incredibly realistic artist’s studio, and though the large canvases that litter the space are not very convincing as original Mark Rothkos’, they still give a sense of the absorbing quality of his work, and manage to look much better under dimmed light (which is the point!)
This is an extremely well executed production of an absorbing and thought-provoking play, which is a fine example of the best the Nottingham New Theatre has to offer.