Artists, bless ‘em, are habitually indulged – on stage and screen at least – when it comes to talking, ranting and pontificating about art. As long as they have the imprimatur of troubled genius, we’ll happily watch them behaving outrageously and splenetically throwing their paint brushes out of the pram whenever the world refuses to understand them. So it is with Red, John Logan’s multi-award-winning portrait of Mark Rothko.
Or perhaps that should be “so it seems.” After insisting we endure this middle-aged enfant terrible volubly unpacking the contents of his tortured soul for 45 minutes, Logan smartly switches perspective and the play becomes a critique of artistic navel-gazing and, it might be argued, of the artist-as-genius genre itself.
Set in Rothko’s New York studio at the end of the 1950s, Red pits Abstract Expressionism’s leading light, played by Randy Hughson, against his gauche, initially awe-struck young assistant, Ken (Jesse Aaron Dwyre).
Rothko is working on a new commission, a series of works for the walls of a fancy Park Avenue restaurant, and he’s about to get very rich indeed. Ken, for his part, is only too happy to learn at the feet of the master and maybe get an appraisal of his own painting, which is tucked away, still unwrapped, alongside Rothko’s monumental canvases.
Much of the play consists of a high-flown discourse between the two about Nietzschean aesthetics, the tussle between Dionysian and Apollonian impulses, and the multifarious meanings of the colour red, Rothko’s weapon of choice in the war against the encroaching blackness of his life.
It’s all fascinating stuff, delivered beautifully and often at boiling point by these two riveting actors under Martha Henry’s muscular and sensitive direction. But just when the audience might be forgiven for fidgeting at what sometimes sounds like an animated version of an exhibition catalog, it becomes clear that all this talk-talk-talk is really a smokescreen hiding the conflicts and contradictions which finally burst into the open.
Rothko’s hushed, sometimes hollered, hymns to his own Muse begin to ring a little hollow. It becomes apparent that Ken isn’t as sold on Rothko’s philosophies as his puppyish adulation would suggest. And so after much theorising comes full-blown drama and epic confrontation. Logan, who’s written for big screen blockbusters like Gladiator and Skyfall, proves he knows what he’s doing when it comes to precisely drawn dramatic arcs and devastatingly delivered emotional payloads.
There are one or two missteps along the way. The revelation of bloody tragedy in Ken’s past seems too neatly apposite to the play’s colour scheme – ironic given this character’s skepticism towards the cliché of what he calls Rothko’s “anthropomorphising” of the colour black. And though Ken acknowledges that Rothko doesn’t do small-talk, one longs for them both to take a little time out every now and then to just shoot the breeze, if only to let us see what makes them tick when their guards are down.
Overall, though, this is a compelling, often deftly funny masterclass, not only in modernist art, but in how to convey so much using a deceptively small dramatic canvas. Whatever one thinks of Rothko’s paintings – majestic portals to other planes of consciousness or stuff your five-year-old could knock off inside of an hour – their presence on the stage makes for a wonderfully visual and sometimes cleverly interacting counterpoint to all that wordiness. Full marks to scenic painters Jeremy Gordaneer and Nadia Lombardo for pulling off some pretty convincing forgeries.
Red, at the Segal Centre to December 16.
Ticket Info here.
A playwright and arts journalist from England, Jim Burke has written for BBC radio and television. He now resides in Montreal where he teaches creative writing at Dawson College’s Centre For Training and Development. His play Cornered will be produced at the Bain St. Michel in March of 2013.