When John Logan’s play about artist Mark Rothko ran at the Donmar Warehouse in 2009, it received favourable, but not ecstatic, reviews.
The London run was followed by a successful transfer to Broadway, with the play scoring six Tony wins including best play, best director for Michael Grandage, plus a nomination for Alfred Molina in the lead role.
Molina reprises his role for this West End revival of the two-hander, with Grandage again directing. The only change from the original company is Alfred Enoch (Dean Thomas in the Harry Potter films) replacing Eddie Redmayne (another Tony Winner) as Rothko’s assistant Ken.
The awe-struck Ken arrives at the New York studio of the abstract expressionist in the late 1950s. The artist has been commissioned to paint a series of murals for the prestigious Four Seasons restaurant for a fee of several thousand dollars.
Any doubts Ken has about his role in the project are soon cleared up when the bombastic and overbearing Rothko points out that he is an employee, not an artist. His job is to mix paints, stretch canvasses, get coffee and maybe prepare a background on which his boss can paint.
But Ken’s job also requires him to be a punchbag as Rothko spews forth his views on the nature of art. And Rothko isn’t a man short of an opinion or two; be it attacking former friend and contemporary Jackson Pollock for spending his earnings on a flashy car, or his contempt for the cubists who came before him and pop artists such as Roy Lichtenstein and Robert Rauschenberg who are beginning their ascendency. Andy Warhol doesn’t even warrant a tirade – just an ice-cold stare when his name is mentioned.
For Rothko art is a visceral and tactile as well as cerebral experience – as demonstrated when the two men feverishly apply paint to a giant canvas to the accompaniment of a classical aria in a kind of primeval ballet. Then there are moments when Rothko stands close to the canvas, gently touching its surface as one would the cheek of a baby.
The torrent of unwavering opinion is an assault on the ears that could add up to the worst kind of dinner party bore, but Molina’s performance is utterly compelling, keeping things just the right side of pretentious, while Logan interjects snippets of humour at just the right moments. When asked why he never paints outdoors, Rothko replies, “Nature doesn’t do it for me. The light’s all wrong.”
The play dramatically turns on a moment when Ken suddenly reveals details of an event from his past that momentarily stops even Rothko in his tracks. Exposing something of his inner self imbues him with a new-found confidence, and he begins to question some of his employer’s opinions and forces Rothko to take a deeper look at himself.
With a running time of around 100 minutes, Logan’s play is a perfectly formed work with dialogue that crackles along, and it’s blessed with two terrific performances that cement its position as a modern classic.
Red is at Wyndham’s Theatre until 28 July