All art is ultimately tragedy, commodified, misinterpreted and subject to the whims of fashion, the greatest art will always mean the self-destruction of the individual, standing apart from real life but forced to see their work reduced by the people who buy it. Whether it is designed to stave-off fears about the fragility of human existence, or to rage against the artistic conventions handed down by generations of beloved artists before them, the creation of a single piece of art is a lonely moment of self-expression. Then again, it might all be self-indulgent nonsense?
John Logan’s Red returns to the West End for the first time since it premiered in 2009, exploring the complex separation between the fire which which something is created by an individual, and how it is subsequently viewed by the masses beyond the walls of the studio. Red is more than just a play, it is a conversation about driving an artistic vision, about purpose and fame and the weight of cultural context that can shape an artist’s profile allowing them to create something new, while simultaneously suffocating that expression of their world.
Set in the studio of Mark Rothko in late 1950s New York, Red opens with the arrival of new assistant Ken, a young artist, who is there to mix paint, clean-up and admire the senior painter. Told in no uncertain terms on day one that there will never be anything more than employer-employee relationship, Rothko focuses on creating a set of paintings commissioned by the new Four Seasons restaurant which he hopes will transform the room into a temple of art. Over two years, the men share few personal moments, but their discussions on the meaning of creativity come to shape them both irrevocably.
For all its high-minded discussion of artistic principles, Red is ultimately a very practical examination of the life of a working painter, taking in the day-to-day necessities of building and preparing canvasses, buying materials and plenty of thinking time. Michael Grandage’s revival may only be 90 minutes, but there is no sense of rush here, and instead the play – much like Rothko’s creations – is given room to breath, to slowly come into focus as a true picture emerges. What you see at first is not the finished piece, but something that takes shape through the conversations between Rothko and Ken, as they find a value in each other’s perspective.
And the mere existence of this relationship, based on little but a financial transaction of employment, becomes hugely significant in the shaping of Rothko’s character and the serious, methodical approach to his work. The first and last image we see is of the man alone, looking at his creations with nothing else in his life. Ken is almost the only person he speaks to in the play, and certainly the only one permitted to see the vision from the inside. Rothko’s essential loneliness (and preference for it), his devotion to creating the right low-level of lighting and to sealing off his creative space from any external influence, speaks volumes about the singularity of purpose Logan suggests is necessary to create eternal art.
At the same time, Ken represents a period of change in society, in art and in Rothko’s approach to the reception of his work. When he roars against commodification of art and condemns emerging Pop Artists, he is giving voice to his own fears of sudden irrelevance and ultimately his own mortality. The tragedy that Rothko fears, that suffuses his work, is exactly the kind of overthrow that his generation was once responsible for, when Cubism was edged out by Abstract Expressionism. The drama in Red comes from this struggle between historical past and present, and between art history and evolving concepts of creativity, for which the characters of Rothko and Ken are metaphors.
As the action unfolds, it’s fascinating to see Ken emerging in confidence as a person but also as an artist. We never see his own work, but where initially he received Rothko’s opinions in almost silent awe, over time he argues back, staking his claim to relevance in the here and now while stepping out from behind Rothko’s shadow into the light. And it is no coincidence that it is Ken’s own shadow we see reflected on the canvas later in the play, and, in the penultimate scene Ken stands alone on stage contemplating the work as he will soon do for his own.
But there is also a very modern relevance here about the disposable nature of contemporary living, with the sense of times changing, in Rothko’s view, for the worse. Even though Logan wrote Red in 2009, long after social media had begun to take root, Rothko’s criticism of the public focus on “likes” still feels prophetic, while his views on those purchasing his art just to be seen, to be known to have taste, or to keep up with Jones’s similarly speaks to more recent obsessions with Instagram lifestyles. If everything is design to capture a single moment, what are the future foundations of our society, where does history, tradition and experience fit in a world based on endless throwaway consumption?
In our new context, Logan’s argument that art matters because it transcends time and is carved from thought, pain and sacrifice is still quite powerful, that creative things should be loved because they have meaning and should inspire us to see and feel the world differently. Grandage’s direction uses the moments of silence to allow the audience to contemplate these discussions, so, like Rothko’s approach to painting, Logan’s frantic moments of debate are counterbalanced by the opportunity to sit back for a few moments and try to see ourselves more clearly.
Christopher Oram’s set is at once an open space, giving the paintings room to exist and to be considered, while suggesting a sealed vacuum, a dimly-lit chamber in which Rothko both actively separates and cautiously protects himself from the vagaries of the world outside. But it also reflects Ken’s experience to a degree as a white canvas, t-shirts and even a movable cupboard are slashed with red paint that subtly links to an important childhood memory.
Adam Cork’s music selection frequently reflects the emotive tenor of a scene, using carefully selected classical pieces to create a mood of frenzied work accompanied by heavy orchestral sounds or lighter imaginative sequences supported by sprightlier tunes. Ken’s conversion is complete when he breaches the walls, bringing in his radical jazz, intruding into Rothko’s private space and bringing new sensations and purpose with him.
Reprising a role that he played in the premiere production at the Donmar almost a decade ago, as well as his award-winning turn on Broadway, it’s hard to imagine anyone but Alfred Molina playing the famous painter. He captures the full-range of contradictions, complexities and passion Rothko exudes, using every second on stage to suggest the mix of arrogance, artistic certainty and dedicated craftsmanship of a serious artist. Only 10% of the time spent creating great work is actually painting he says at one point, so Molina never just stands on the stage, he shows Rothko always thinking about the work, assessing how the piece is unfolding or actively preparing his materials.
Even in discussion with Ken, you feel his mind working endlessly, engaging with the conversation, absorbing every comment and thinking deeply about what’s to come. Yet, Molina remains almost still during these scenes, suggesting all the certainty of a man at ease with his status as a genius, a certainty that comes with age and success that feels imposing, almost intimidating. Molina commands the room, filling his Rothko with bitter rebuke for the less restrained era he lives in, unhappy with the inexperience of an audience unable to properly appreciate the levels of meaning and value of the work they are privileged to see.
Yet, in the new light reflected from Ken’s presence, Molina also suggests at heart Rothko is afraid, almost hiding away to protect his essential fragility. His use of black and red representing the encroaching darkness and frequent references to a sense of tragedy that seems to beset him. It implies a man fighting for his place in art history, desperate to be remembered and to be understood, using his overbearing personality to fake a certainty he is far from feeling. Molina’s trick is to make you wonder how much Rothko has even admitted this to himself.
Alfred Enoch as Ken charts a course through initial naivety and deference, to becoming more confident in his opinions and airing his frustrations. While references, and eventually a full description, of a childhood tragedy are the only aspect of Logan’s play that feel a tad false, as though the young man has been given a convenient backstory on which Logan can hang some of his themes, nonetheless Enoch creates a character who must be the audience’s way in to the story, he is our view of Rothko which shifts and evolves as Ken displays him to us.
Ken fulfils much of the practical activity necessary to run a studio, moving paintings, covering canvasses, mixing shades of colour which act as a tutorial for the emerging artist, and, as Rothko demands, we begin to see him contemplating his wider role in the creation of art from a philosophical and cultural perspective as the months pass. Enoch’s Ken actively grows in front of us until he can stand his own ground, and while Molina’s performance is exceptional, Enoch more than holds his own on the exposing Wydnhams stage.
Red is a show where the audience really needs to see the art work to understand Rothko’s near torment in creating it, so finding a seat with a decent view is important.* Like the Donmar where it first opened, the Wyndhams is a particularly useful choice with good sightlines from most seats, even in the balcony, allowing you to see the large replica paintings scattered around the stage. This may be one occasion where sitting higher-up in the theatre would be an advantage because it gives the viewer a chance to see the minutiae of studio work that won’t be as visible from the stalls, offering a wider perspective on the backstage creation of a single painting as the play intends.
The struggle for artistic integrity and the personal cost of creating art has been a feature of some of London’s most recent productions, including The Writer and Mood Music, which both examined the consequence of female creativity. In this context, this fascinating revival of Red shows us that to create is to suffer, but the tragedy is in knowing that what’s left behind may not mean as much to its consumers. Art, then, is tragedy to some degree, but for an audience this 90-minutes of engaging debate and conversation is pure joy.
Red is at the Wyndhams Theatre until 28 July. Tickets start at £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1
* In choosing good seats, the website Seatplan is particularly useful and user-friendly. It contains a comprehensive layout of every London theatre (and many others), with reviews, star ratings and pictures of the view from individual seats, all uploaded by audience members. Much like TripAdvisor, individuals can add their own experience, and it’s a great place to find tips on legroom, comfort and sightlines before you book. While not every seat has been rated yet – most have and are now colour-coded, so you can see at a glance – you can usually get a sense of the view from the next seat, and you can easily see which reviews also include an image which is invaluable, particularly in the older theatres where the curve of the auditorium or circle overhang can obscure large parts of the stage. The front page is now more focused on selling tickets but the search field for theatre layouts is obvious at the top