‘Red’ shifts like a real Rothko
RED. Directed by Steven Stead, with Michael Richard and Jeremy Richard. At Theatre on the Bay until Saturday. GREG SMITH reviews.
Red provides an exclusive glimpse into the creative process of abstract-expressionist artist Mark Rothko. It was penned by playwright John Logan (Gladiator, The Aviator and Hugo) and won six Tony Awards in 2010.
The play is highly recommended and is both visually and intellectually appealing. I first saw it earlier this year at the National Arts Festival, and enjoyed it even more this time around.
When the story opens, we find Rothko (Michael Richard) smoking and appearing to be contemplating one of his paintings. Inhaling deeply, squinting, and cocking his head from side to side, he seems completely lost in thought. There is a sudden knock on his door, and he barks for the person to come inside. Enter a sharply dressed, polished young man.
We soon learn that this is his new assistant, Ken (Jeremy Richard). Rothko does not greet him, instead asking, while pointing towards the mural in front of him, “what do you see?” As Ken scrambles to provide a suitable answer, it quickly becomes clear that Red does not want its audience members to be mere passengers. Instead, and with Ken, we are required to take part in Rothko’s creative process.
Acted with passion, Richard’s character challenges our routine ways of thinking. “I am here to stop your heart,” Rothko tells his assistant, “I am here to make you think. I am not here to make pretty pictures.”
Set in 1958, the plot is an interpretation of two important years in Rothko’s career. During this time he primarily worked on a commission by the Four Seasons Restaurant – situated within the Seagram Building in New York City. Rothko was asked to paint murals that were to hang on the restaurant’s walls. The play sees him, with the help of Ken, work on these paintings.
Along the way we are taken on a theatrical journey unlike any other. Not only are we given insight into activities such as mixing paint, the priming and stretching of canvases or the making of frames, but we are also witness to fierce discussions between the two actors.
Topics relate to the nature of true art, as well as the artistic merits of several famous artists. For instance, Red’s action takes place during the twilight of the abstract-expressionist movement. This was a time when pop artists such as Frank Stella and Andy Warhol started to gain attention. As an artist who did not make art purely for the sake of decoration, Rothko finds it difficult to pass the torch to the next generation. And while his arguments are completely valid, Ken reminds him that abstract-expressionists, in turn, “stomped cubism to death” several years before.
It is in moments such as this where Jeremy Richard’s acting is most enjoyable. In a play where the young actor could easily have been overwhelmed by his veteran co-star, he bides his time and strikes at just the right moments. As mostly a soundboard for Rothko’s thought process we are, for instance, caught completely off-guard when he shares a heartbreaking story of loss at a young age.
This is where the calibre of Logan’s writing makes him stand out. His characters are ambiguous and the viewer’s opinions of them are constantly challenged. No sentence has one meaning alone.
At one point Rothko asks, “Do you really think Andy Warhol will be hanging in museums in a hundred years?” This can be seen as a statement regarding the interpretation of art that can change over time. But it can also be seen as Rothko commenting on the nature of temporary fame.
Logan as a scriptwriter showcases a commendable ability to blend Rothko’s ideas and techniques into the creation of a memorable character – a character that teaches, challenges and provokes his audience.
“You cannot be an artist until you are civilised,” he tells us. “You cannot be civilised until you learn. To be civilised is to know where you belong in the continuum of your art and your world.”
But at the same time his words could have been just that. This is where I thought the KickstArt Theatre Company did an incredible job in producing this play. The director, Steven Stead, has a clear respect and passion for the script. He uses his actors and stage set in ways that both complement and animate Logan’s writing.
Like Rothko’s paintings, Red is constantly shifting and evolving. One’s appreciation of it does not stop at the end of the performance.
It is one of the most memorable and rewarding works you will see all year.
l Call 021 438 3300, or see www.theatreonthebay.co.za