Michael Grandage once again directs this Tony Award-winning play after it’s world premier at the Donmar Warehouse in 2009. Alfred Molina returns to the role of Abstract Expressionist painter, Mark Rothko bringing a storming intensity that is fascinating to watch.
We spend a short and intense 90 minutes inside Rothko’s New York studio in 1958 when he was commissioned by the Four Seasons restaurant to produce a set of paintings.
Supported by his fictional assistant Ken we watch as he tortures himself over the supposed commercial sell-out of such a commission. Ken represents the new wave of artists chomping at the heels of the old, challenging Rothko’s contempt for pop art, his artistic theories and basically anything new and emerging.
This is a handsome and at times mesmerising production. Thanks to a wonderful set design by Christopher Oram and lighting by Neil Austin, the huge art works on display become secondary characters in their own right.
All red and black, they glow, pulsate and radiate an energy and we can understand why Rothko treated them as his children. The physical and emotional toil of producing such work is palpable – watching the two actors wordlessly prep the canvass in perfect harmony is a highlight.
Alfred Molina as Rothko is formidably good. He has the power and presence of a bull, conserving movement but radiating energy and strength much like his paintings. He’s quite literally the embodiment of the tortured artist, self absorbed, bombastic, terrifying and unpredictable. It’s a towering performance of a hugely complicated and conflicted personality.
Alfred Enoch as assistant Ken is all nervous energy in the beginning, desperate to impress this formidable giant but slowly growing and gaining confidence and self awareness. Unfortunately, he is dogged with a back story concerning the murder of his parents that feels clunky.
Enoch makes an impressive stab at his lengthy monologue but through no fault of his own it never rings true. That aside, it is a thoughtful, sensitive and measured performance – the perfect light to Molina’s darkness.
This is a great production about the pleasure and pain of creating art and about the fascinating process of the tortured artist Mark Rothko. With wonderful staging and fantastic performances it’s an examination into the transcending power of art. Highly recommended.
Red plays at Wyndham’s Theatre, London until 28 July
Words by Matthew Hyde