Circa Theatre’s production of Red presents a slice of the working life of Russian-born American painter Mark Rothko (played by John Bach). The Play focuses on what is known as the Seagram’s Commission – in 1958, Rothko was commissioned to paint murals to grace the walls of the prestigious Four Seasons restaurant in New York. Red, written by John Logan, was the 2010 Tony Award winner for Best Play.
As the audience files through the doors of Circa Two, the impression is that we are entering the artist’s studio. Great care has been taken by Andrew Foster (set designer as well as director) to evoke that sense of place. He has gone so far as to dress the rear walls of the theatre, enclosing the audience within the set and engendering a ‘fly on the wall’ feeling. Much effort has been taken to produce believable artistic clutter, right down to a working sink, as well as artless and realistic paint smears all over the floor, built up naturally over the rehearsal period.
Large imitation Rothko murals adorn the walls of the playing space and working period-style lights hung on tracks above the stage are moved around by the actors to illuminate the paintings. This ties in with Rothko’s professed abhorrence of ‘natural light’, as does the narrow light-box set high in the ceiling, forming a window into the dimly-lit studio. The envelopment of the audience in the world of the play is enhanced by the subtle lighting design by Ulli Briese, and the only sound is the music played by the characters on the studio’s record player.
In order to facilitate an insight into this period in Rothko’s life, we are introduced to Rothko’s new assistant (played by Paul Waggott). Apparently he is Ken, although we are never told his name, which appears to be a deliberate choice by the playwright, given the nature of his relationship with Rothko. The artist employed assistants throughout his career, more often towards the end, as his style of painting consisted of layering colours on large canvases and the physical exertion became too much for him in his later years. For me, the most wonderful moments in Red are when the actors work at the business of painting, mixing, canvas stretching, and the like. The strain, the sweat and heavy breathing, the sheer effort makes them more compelling to me than any of the lines the playwright gives them.
This brings me to the main problem with the play. Rothko talks often in the piece about the relative value of art and the relationship of art and the observer. He frequently bemoans the fact that he is unable to find a “real human being”, worthy of looking upon his creations. It was frustrating to sit and watch this play, wishing that the characters in it were the real human beings that Rothko sought. There is a lot of proselytising about art and philosophy, but very little humanity in the characters. I understand that playwrights can be restricted by the autobiographical nature of a piece like this and it’s difficult to know whether Logan permitted himself any artistic licence with the character. Presumably Logan has inserted the fictional assistant as a foil to Rothko’s ranting, but to a non-art-aficionado, Ken’s character is clumsily written and frequently comes across as a mere device.
There is a tumultuous backstory of the fictional assistant, that, however well delivered by Waggott, feels shoehorned in. It seems like a last-ditch attempt by the playwright to inject some much-needed pathos into the play and, ultimately, feels like blatant emotional manipulation.
I may not know art, but I know what I like about theatre. I want to be moved. Theatre as an art form relies on story, on the connection and empathy you feel for the characters. Bach and Waggott’s performances are practically faultless, yet in terms of becoming sympathetic characters they are let down by the text. Rothko presents as a self-indulgent artist and not much more – for example, not once in the play was his wife, Mell, mentioned. Ken has one phone conversation with a mystery person, who is never referred to again. Neither of their lives outside work impinge on what goes on in the world of the play. This wouldn’t be an issue, if a relationship worth caring about developed between them within this lovingly crafted studio. But it simply doesn’t – two years ostensibly pass over the course of the play, and it may as well have been one day. Rothko doesn’t seem to be entirely devoid of humour and the interplay between Bach and Waggott provides some very titter-worthy moments. However, Rothko’s dour and eccentric demeanour occasionally giving way to brief explosions of temper began to feel like a circular journey that would repeat through the rest of the artist’s life. Again, that may well be the truth of the matter, but the ultimate question is why should we want to watch it on stage?
I am left with the impression that Red was written by someone very knowledgeable about art, using the Seagram’s Commission event in Rothko’s life to examine the struggle of the artist. In particular, we are shown an artist on the downward slope of one zeitgeist giving way to another (in this case, Abstract Impressionism being subsumed by the rise of Pop Art). I’m sure if I knew more about either artistic movement, or even about classics like Caravaggio and Rembrandt, I would have felt very clever watching this. Unfortunately, as more of the ‘everyman’ viewer, Red ultimately left me cold. The irony of this is that the play spends a long time dealing with how to use art to evoke reaction and emotion in the viewer – Rothko bemoans the fact that people don’t know how to look at art, how to spend enough time with it.
In the end, Red is a triumph of style over substance – a play about art that is more about being art than being a play. John Bach and Paul Waggott are two very accomplished actors and Andrew Foster and his team have worked hard to inject life and pathos into the piece but, even after spending 90 minutes with it, to this viewer Red remained largely two-dimensional on the canvas.
Red runs until August 10, you can book tickets here
For more information on Mark Rothko, visit his Arty page here