“What do you see?” asks Mark Rothko (Alfred Molina) at the start of Red, filmed at the Wyndham’s Theatre in 2018. This question is the central theme of the play and is repeated no fewer than ten times throughout the 90 minutes. Red is a stunning depiction of the relationship between the famed abstract painter Rothko and his fictionalised assistant Ken (Alfred Enoch).
I was able to watch this play thanks to the Shows Must Go On YouTube channel. I’ve written about this before, but now the channel has started up again and is showing plays during the week in addition to musicals at the weekend. Alas, Red was only online for 48 hours so is no longer available through YouTube.
The play is set in 1958 around the time Rothko had been commissioned to paint a group of murals for the Four Seasons restaurant. Throughout the play Rothko edifies his assistant through impassioned speeches and furious debates. All this despite insisting upon Ken that “I am not your rabbi, I am not your father, I am not your shrink, I am not your friend, I am not your teacher — I am your employer”.
The development of the relationship between Rothko and Ken drives the play. By the end of the play Rothko has in some way, metaphorical or otherwise, played all the roles he insisted he was not. Whilst Rothko changes to become ever so slightly more open to Ken’s ideas, Ken’s character grows exponentially. He starts the play as a nervous and naïve lad on his first day as a painter’s assistant. From the reluctant and seemingly unintended tutelage of Rothko, Ken becomes assertive and willing to stick his ground.
Rothko and Ken engage in a battle of words and wit as they psychoanalyse each other through the lens of art and their respective responses to it
It is through this relationship that the audience is treated to fascinating insights and debates on what Rothko’s art truly means. If one has ever looked at a Rothko it is likely that you had one of two responses: awe at the scale and impressiveness, or that you said “I could do that”. Indeed, the art that Rothko is producing throughout this play is mostly a background in some shade of red with imposing black, or darker red, rectangles on top.
Personally, I enjoy Rothko’s work, even if I didn’t understand ‘the point’. But from watching this play I have a new-found appreciation for his work and this style of art. That a play could be so enthralling and also teach is testament to John Logan’s writing.
Rothko and Ken are perfectly opposing characters. This is really emphasised by how colours encode their fears. Rothko’s only fear is that “one day the black will swallow the red” an idea that is explored in depth throughout the play. What does ‘black’ truly mean Rothko? Whereas Ken equates the colour white with death: the white of the snow he saw on the day his parents died. Again, the true, deeper meaning of this is analysed throughout. Rothko and Ken engage in a battle of words and wit as they psychoanalyse each other through the lens of art and their respective responses to it.
With frenzied, yet ordered, strokes of their brushes the canvas is transformed and the two of them emerge splattered with paint and shiny with sweat
Molina and Enoch, under the direction Michael Grandage, are perfect in their roles. Molina captures the jaded yet passionate personality of Rothko, the feeling of a sadness being held tight within, and explosiveness of his anger. Enoch epitomises the youthful naivety of someone just entering the world of art. Together they are a tour de force of acting ability, truly drawing the viewer in to hang on their every word.
Beyond the acting, the set design of Christopher Oram places the viewer in Rothko’s studio, and we stay in this one location throughout the play. Scene changes are heralded by changing which painting takes centre stage. The art piece become a sort of character in and of itself, especially as the play progresses and the meanings behind it is expounded. This effect is achieved in part due to Neil Austin’s lighting design. As Rothko explains, his paintings don’t work in natural or bright light. This is shown beautifully when the full lights of the studio are turned on and the paintings suddenly seem dull and uninteresting.
The signature moment of the show comes around the halfway point where Rothko and Ken work together to apply the base layer of a fresh canvas. With frenzied, yet ordered, strokes of their brushes the canvas is transformed and the two of them emerge splattered with paint and shiny with sweat. It is no wonder that this scene is highlighted in the trailer and was part of the reason I was so intrigued to watch it in the first place.
I won’t do a disservice to the play and say I liked it (Rothko specifically states, “Of course you like it — how can you not like it?! Everyone likes everything nowadays.”). But the play stunned me with the brilliance of its writing and the power of the performances, especially by Molina.
Although the play is no longer available on YouTube, an audio performance by LA Theatre Works starring Alfred Molina and Jonathon Groff, and directed by Bart DeLorenzo is available from Digital Theatre Plus accessible using your University of Nottingham login details, or for purchase from LATW.
In-article images courtesy of @redtheplay via instagram.com. No changes made to these images.
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