There is something fascinating about seeing a canvas being primed with paint live on stage. The canvas is vast, the paint dark red and the two men who are painting it are working with a fury, covering themselves and the floor, as well as the canvas, with the fruits of their labours.
This is a scene in John Logan’s new play Red, which gives us a glimpse into the world of 20th century artist Mark Rothko at a crucial time in his life. It is 1958 and the immigrant New Yorker artist has received a highly paid and prestigious commission to paint a series of murals for the exclusive Four Seasons restaurant. During the course of two years, we see him working on this commission alongside a young painter whom he employs as canvas-stretcher, coffee-fetcher, paint-stirrer and general dogsbody.
But the relationship between the two does not run smoothly and through their heated discussions we learn more about the motivations of Rothko, a temperamental, egotistical artist who is gradually having to face the fact that his work is likely to be superseded by that of a new generation of artists.
Designer Christopher Oram has transformed the Donmar Warehouse into the artist’s studio, with every implement splattered with the dark blood red of the paint Rothko is using in his murals. The imagery is obvious; Rothko was to commit suicide by slitting his wrists a decade later and the themes of blood, tragedy and death run through Logan’s play.
Alfred Molina plays the artist as a volatile, self-obsessed man whose mood swings from one extreme to the other quicker than his assistant can hand him a paintbrush. He ably depicts the central paradox of Rothko and perhaps any artist; that he is not painting to gain public approval, to be liked, to be commercial, and yet he must be commercial to make a living. As his young assistant, Ken, Eddie Redmayne is at first nervous and tentative when responding to the famous artist, but gradually grows into himself and learns to stand up to the bullying and temper tantrums of his employer. He delivers a neat body blow to the older man’s pretensions about the abstract nature of his work when he says, “sometimes, you just f**king want a still life.”
The third star of the show must be Neil Austin’s clever lighting, which low-lights the copies of Rothko’s paintings expertly, supporting Rothko’s hatred of natural light. A canvas that seems dull and flat in the cold light of day positively glows under Austin’s lighting.
Rothko’s murals never did decorate the walls of the Four Seasons restaurant. Through the relationship between the artist and his assistant, Logan offers some explanation for this, providing an intriguing window into the studio of a man who may be a master of art but is losing touch with the world in which he paints.