Plays about the making of art are always tricky. How does one dramatize what goes on in an artist's head? How to balance the audience in the know about an artist with those who may know little or nothing? One can be overly specialized or dumb down to the lowest common denominator as Peter Shaffer's AMADEUS did with Mozart -- only a person who cared nothing about Mozart could make it through that play. John Logan's RED creates the proper balance. For those of us who know something about the life and work of Mark Rothko, this play imaginatively and convincingly takes us inside the artist's mind. For the rest, the play is a fascinating character study and an arresting conflict between an older and younger man. The older man (Rothko) plays the role of patriatch, mentor, critic and bully to a younger, aspiring artist who is his assistant, but the younger man more than holds his own. Rothko's hermetic studio is the only environment in which the brooding, angst-ridden artist feels in control. It is his world in which he slowly and painstakingly conceives of his paintings which he fears no one will understand. For him, they are dark psychodramas: for those who can afford them, they will be decor. The young man is a fan of the younger generation of artists like Warhol and Rauschenberg.
Each scene in RED is a kind of battle, for Rothko sees himself as an Ahab battling dark forces within and without. The young man, who has suffered genuine tragedy in his short life, is more resilient. Without resilience and a fighting spirit, he could never survive two years as Rothko's assistant. During the course of the play Rothko is creating the large paintings commissioned for the Four Seasons Restaurant in the new Seagram's Building in New York. We know that he will ultimately refuse to have the paintings hanging there where they will indeed be mere decor for the rich patrons drinking and dining there. In this version, it is the young man who confronts him with the irony of pacing his paintings in such a commercial venue. It could never be the temple of art he wants it to be.
RED is beautifully written and a great vehicle for actors. Alfred Molina is excellent as the hulking, brooding Rothko and the gifted Eddie Redmayne, an intense, highly physical actor, as his young assistant and antagonist. The Donmar Warehouse stage was convincingly turned into an artist's loft. All in all an intense, play brilliantly directed (Can Michael Grandage do otherwise) and acted.
RED by John Logan, directed by Michael Grandage, designed by Christopher Oram. Alfred Molina and Eddie Redmayne. Donmar Warehouse Theatre. December 19, 2009.