It’s nine years since John Logan’s Red premiered at the Donald and Margot Warehouse, and while I would have happily seen it again at the time its hit transfer to New York meant it never had a further life in London. Michael Grandage has finally been able to rectify this with a revival at Wyndham’s, and has even managed to bring back his original star, Alfred Molina, to play the artist Mark Rothko. The play is the imagined story of the painting of The Seagram Murals, a sequence of red and black paintings originally commissioned to decorate the elite Four Seasons restaurant. It immediately sounds like an unlikely home for a collection of moody, ominous canvases, and Rothko did in the end withdraw from the commission. In a way Red is the story of how he comes to that decision, as he bats ideas back and forth with a fictional assistant, Ken, played by Startled Giraffe Alfred Enoch. The role was originally played by Eddie Redmayne, because Grandage is seemingly committed to only casting Red with actors who have red in their names.
The story spans two years, from Ken’s first day in the job to his last, and largely consists of the star artist – who insists he’s not there to teach the assistant who aspires to become one himself – holding forth on the history of art and the meaning of his own work.
Viewed a second time, it’s easier to see through the fireworks to what is contrived* about Logan’s script; Molina’s explosive performance as the volatile, narcissistic and endlessly questioning Rothko is written to be the sort of big performance Broadway audiences love, and it’s to the credit of Grandage and Molina that they make it utterly believable. In theory, the fact that most of Rothko and Ken’s working time is spent talking should also seem like dramatic contrivance, but the idea that Rothko’s process is 10% painting, 90% standing back, looking and thinking, sells it: When Rothko’s musing about Caravaggio sets off a thought about what his current painting needs, the moment when it looks like he might actually put brush to canvas becomes genuinely thrilling.
If it’s sometimes possible to see through the effect to how everything’s put together, at least this is very much on-theme. Among a number of striking scenes is one where Rothko’s carefully-lit studio is exposed to harsh fluorescent lights, baring every corner not just of Christopher Oram’s imposing set but also the artist’s works-in-progress, flattened and losing much of their mystery (given his aversion to natural light and very specific requirements for how his work should be seen, the biggest mystery is surely why Rothko ever thought a restaurant would be a good home for it in the first place.) Probably the biggest setpiece moment of the play comes when he and Ken prime a canvas with a first layer of muddy red paint; the dried-blood colour it dries to will define what further layers of paint Rothko is inspired to apply. It’s a burst of physical activity that leaves them both breathless, a reminder of how daunting taking on a canvas of this size must be (when his health deteriorated in later life, Rothko was actually on doctor’s orders to switch to less physically demanding media.)
Given the colours used in the mural there’s a lot of discussion of red and black, specifically how they represent Rothko’s existential fear of the red being overwhelmed by the black; casting a mixed-race actor in a role previously played by one of the whitest people on earth does suggest a new interpretation to the play’s discussion of the symbolism of black in art, although I wouldn’t say I actually came to any conclusions about what that might be. If Red sometimes sounds like an art history lecture that’s certainly part of what it is, but while some of the layers it’s made up of are a bit more exposed in its new home than they were at the Donmar, the production’s dynamic and sometimes fascinating look at a man simultaneously troubled and utterly convinced of his own importance makes it come to life in front of a larger audience.
Red by John Logan is booking until the 28th of July at Wyndham’s Theatre.
Running time: 1 hour 35 minutes straight through.
Photo credit: Johan Persson.
*Ken has a tragic backstory so florid even Eureka O’Hara would think it was a bit much