ALWAYS ABSORBING, AT TIMES ELECTRIFYING; SERIOUSLY IMPRESSIVE
by John Logan
Directed by Lara Macgregor
at Fortune Theatre, Dunedin
From 14 Apr 2012 to 5 May 2012
Reviewed by Terry MacTavish, 15 Apr 2012
"People who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them," said the famous abstract-expressionist artist, Mark Rothko. Is it then blasphemy to use such art as mere decor in a restaurant where only the privileged will eat?
With the shameless guile of the seasoned reviewer, I have invited to Red a friend who just happens to have been a respected Art Department Head, lest I am at a loss to follow what will surely be high level artistic debate. I need not have worried: while Red certainly has depth and authenticity, it is accessible, enthralling entertainment.
Like Rothko I have stood awe struck in Pompeii's Villa of Mysteries, so overwhelmed and inspired that my first act on acquiring a house was to paint one room entirely and overpoweringly red. To be utterly absorbed in a colour is a breathtaking experience. John Logan in his turn was so moved by Rothko's red murals that this play had to be written.
It was 1958 when Rothko won the biggest ever art commission: the Seagram murals for the swanky Four Seasons restaurant in New York. After two years working on his stunning red canvases, he reneged on the deal, returning the huge advance fee.
In Red,Logan speculates on the reasons for this dramatic change of heart. Perhaps Rothko thinks he can stay true to his values by creating such powerful works that he will put rich punters off their dinners (he'd paint, he said, "something that would ruin the appetite of every son-of-a-bitch who ever eats in that room") but when an idealistic apprentice plucks up the courage to challenge him, he must re-evaluate.
The master/apprentice is an oft-used device in a two-hander, providing a confidant, but also inevitably a rival or threat, and it works because it is based in truth, exemplifying the eternal struggle between old and new. Once Ken the assistant is over his initial awe, the two argue about everything, from Jackson Pollock (admired by Ken, abhorred by Rothko) to the Greek gods (Rothko sees himself as Apollo, battling for truth and order against the chaos of Dionysus: Pollock again).
Even as paintings should evoke emotional and visceral response, so too should theatre, and director Lara Macgregor has produced a play of exuberant intensity to match Rothko's art. This tension informs all aspects of the production, from the opening, when Rothko fiercely contemplates the audience, positioned where his painting must be, through to the striking image that foreshadows the tragic end to Rothko's life.
The badinage between the two characters is beautifully paced, taut and thrilling with revelations and surprises, although Macgregor also provides us with neat examples of Rothko's dictum: "Silence is so accurate." However, the highlight that has my artist guest shivering with pleasure is the excitement of the actual physical creation of an art masterpiece. Cleverly choreographed, Rothko and his apprentice duck and dive around each other, preparing then splashing paint onto a huge canvas with exhilarating energy. Fabulous!
John Bach has not been on stage here since Someone Who'll Watch Over Me but his intelligent face and rich voice have proved unforgettable and I am not surprised that he makes the role his own with consummate ease. His Rothko is egotistical, pompous and cruel, but believably brilliant. It is a well-researched and beautifully realised performance by an actor who, like Rothko, is master of his craft.
Good casting too for the role of the young assistant, an aspiring painter himself, though arrogant Rothko shows not the slightest interest in this. As Ken, Cameron Douglas moves seamlessly from humble admirer in tidy suit to furious antagonist, providing a convincing foil for Bach. Their stimulating verbal battles include a glorious riff on the meaning of ‘red', in which the young man sees passion and life, while the old reads danger and despair.
Altogether the production values of Red are quite outstanding, showing that rare thing: an entire theatre company working at the top of its game.
The set, designed by Peter King, is so authentic an artist's studio that my painter friend is itching to get down onto the stage and start work. The attention to detail is superb, from the paint stained floor to the grubby hand basin. It provokes an exciting sense of anticipation: this is a working space and we will surely witness creation.
The studio is transformed to a thing of beauty by the moody shadows split by mysteriously lovely shafts of light illuminating paintings, while the little stove glimmers red and high windows subtly reveal the passage of time: lighting so luscious it simply has to be the design of Martyn Roberts. It is smoothly operated by Syd Nambiar, along with the classical music playing on Rothko's gramophone: a delicate soundtrack designed by Lindsay Gordon.
Properties Master Jen Aitken has accomplished the amazing feat, essential for the success of the production, of creating massive paintings that come as close as I can imagine to genuine Rothkos.
Even the programme is a stunner: glossy, elegant and informative, with readable background articles by some very erudite people: a worthy collector's piece in itself.
Red is a work with depths to be explored, that would reward a second visit: always absorbing and at times electrifying. Like Rothko's art, it is seriously impressive, and not just for the intelligentsia.
I wait apprehensively for some art world jargon as my knowledgeable friend turns to me at the end. Her face is glowing. ‘This is a cool play!' she announces emphatically.
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See also reviews by:
Barbara Frame (Otago Daily Times);