Melbourne Theatre Company
Kate Herbert on March 26, 2012
Red is the title of John Logan’s Tony Award winning play, and that imposing colour overwhelms the space and characters, bleeding from huge canvases onto floor, walls, clothing and hands.
The play is didactic and expository, like a Socratic dialogue between master and pupil or, in this case, Rothko and his beleaguered, young painter’s assistant, Ken, played with sensitivity by André de Vanny.
Logan concentrates the action in the working world inside Rothko’s darkened studio where natural light is the enemy and thought is as significant as paint during his two years working on his ambitious series for The Four Seasons restaurant.
Despite his resistance to beauty, commercialism and the bourgeoisie, Rothko accepted this huge commission to decorate this swish, new playground for rich New Yorkers only to withdraw after visiting the restaurant.
The performances of Friels and de Vanny are the great strength of Alkinos Tsilimidos’ production and they enliven the text, imbuing it with light and darkness.
Language is as important as Rothko’s abstraction, colour and proportion, with floods of metaphorical and discursive dialogue spilling from both characters like parallel streams that occasionally merge.
Friels pounds the air with Rothko’s vehement arguments and rampant intellectualism, while de Vanny, as Ken, tends to his every need like a dutiful servant until finally exploding into blazing criticism that shows he has outgrown his master.
The language is dense and its focus on argument and the painter’s work is often effective but sometimes, dare I say, overwritten, with little dramatic development or dramatic arc.
The huge canvasses give some sense of Rothko’s luminous paintings and Shaun Gurton’s design is a vivid representation of an artist’s studio.
Tsilimidos’ production slows during the long scene changes, but the actors give the play some rhythm and pace.
Rothko’s work reverberates with echoes of his grim childhood in Russia, his youth in New York as a victim of anti-Semitism and his fear of death.
After his enormous fame, Rothko was shocked that his reputation diminished in the 1960s when Pop Art was killing off Abstract Expressionists just as they had killed off the Cubists before them.
For those who do not know Rothko’s art, this play could be alienating, but perhaps this is a useful or intentional outcome given the alienating style of the Abstract Expressionists.
By Kate Herbert