Paul T Davies reviews Alfred Molina and Alfred Enoch in John Logan’s play Red at the Wyndham’s Theatre.
Intellectually dazzling, dripping, (sometimes literally), with creativity, John Logan’s play about Mark Rothko gets a hugely welcome revival, directed by Michael Grandage in a new West End season. Commissioned to paint a series of murals for the Four Seasons Restaurant in the new Seagram building in 1958, Rothko aimed to create paintings of deep meditation, a “communion with the tragic reality of humanity’s wrought havoc” as Simon Schama says in the programme notes. The play follows the development of those murals, steeped in shades of red, and Rothko’s abandoning of the commission after he visited the restaurant and discovered that people…just eat and chatter.
The agony and ecstasy of creation, the defence of the arts, the challenges to Rothko and his “difficult genius” and the threat from a new generation of Pop artists drive the narrative and the play. The main reason to see this play is the superlative acting. Alfred Molina revisits the role of Rothko, after his 2009 Donmar Warehouse triumph, and it’s a towering, magnificent performance. Passionate, patronising, egotistical, funny, the shades and deepening of Rothko’s character is beautifully layered and portrayed. In particular is the magnificence of his stillness, even with his back to the audience he exudes both authority and despair. As his assistant Ken, Alfred Enoch is equally impressive, at times innocent, trying to keep up with his mentor’s demands, and finding the strength to question whether the murals are any good, flinching from onslaughts of verbal aggression and defence from Rothko that have been triggered by throwaway comments. In particular the voices of both actors are sumptuous, painting the auditorium with Logan’s words, hitting every beat perfectly, relishing the descriptions of shades of red, of passionate wordplay and debate.
The set and costume design, capturing Rothko’s studio, sealed off from natural light, is another triumph for Christopher Oram, and lighting designer Neil Austin introduced me to more shades of red than I thought possible. There is a terrific sequence where Rothko and Ken prime a canvas for painting, and once Rothko has chosen exactly the right music to work to, (the music choices are wonderful in this productions, cascading throughout the auditorium), the actors race with each other to fill the canvas, paint showering over each other, ending up sweaty and breathless. It’s a marvellous moment, and, whilst acknowledging that this is a play of debate, I wish the script had let loose a little more. I felt I didn’t know much more about the artist at the end than I did at the start of the ninety minutes performance, and while Ken reveals the murder of his parents and his challenging upbringing, Rothko (rightly) remains mainly cerebral in his responses and approach to life.
However, the undercurrent of Rothko’s growing depression, the fear of “blocking out the red with black”, is beautifully scored. This a production that is a feast for both eyes and ears, and the performances make a lasting impression as memorable as any masterpiece.