Wednesday, 27 January 2010
Theatre for The Arena- Red
John Logan. Donmar Warehouse. London.
John Logan's portrait of an artist and a young man is typical of all productions I have seen at the Donmar. The acting is pitched perfectly, the use of its intimate venue is inventive and always original and it is thoroughly engaging. Both production and play are excellent. The setting is Mark Rothko's studio- details are engrossing- a sink encrusted with what looks like centuries of paint, a heady aroma of white spirit, groundsheets flecked with colour. There is an inherent irony to the work's presentation, and Alfred Molina's embodiment, of Rothko. Meditations on death and posterity abound; 'Rothko and Rembrandt, Rothko and Rembrandt, Rothko and Rembrandt' he chants with an almost religious fervor- a fantastical incantation, an attempt to convince himself that he is worthy of the same breath and will be as canonical as the Old Master. That he will matter. But Rothko himself is a life force- blustering, antagonistic, didactic, he moves in fits and bursts- of anger, of creativity. The play's most memorable scene has him and his assistant priming a canvas with frenetic exhilaration. It is raw and involving artistic expression, paint springs and smells on the stage, and we are charmed to be party to it. Rothko's energy is his character; he casts himself as a titan raging against the dying of the light and the contrast between light and dark form a key conceit for the play. He eschewed natural light- he saw it as clinical, giving a studio the atmosphere of a surgery. Only in soft, controlled light could the work 'pulsate'- perhaps a further indication of his pretension, his artistic tyranny. But darkness for Rothko is more than literal. It is youth yielding to age. It is the untimely death of Jackson Pollock. It is the burgeoning success of 'consumer' artists such as Lichtenstein and Warhol, whose work Rothko derides as 'mantlepiece' art, artwork that people buy to keep up with the Joneses. Finally, it is reduction of Rothko's palette, from plums and scarlets to sooty grey and bible black, in the face of incipient oblivion. This is well realized by Christopher Oram's stage design- background canvases are intermittently changed throughout the production, red's predominance is eaten away by black. Rothko's bombast is fuelled by a desire that his work be more than a bourgeois interior design aid- that his shapes could be mouths, his colours howls, eliciting the entropy and Shakespearian sense of inevitability at the heart of Rothko's human condition. When he asks his assistant Ken (Eddie Redmayne) 'Have you read Hamlet?' he may as well have said 'Do you understand my art?' But, the hypocrisy of Rothko's diatribes is flagged by his decision to accept a commission from the New York Four Seasons, his paintings will be a visual appetizer to the convoluted and overpriced dishes on offer. One particular speech describes his distaste for his 'vulnerable' paintings new home- and in the acerbic adverbs that occasion his description of the clientele he rejects not only their class, but humanity in its entirety. Ken is on site to make this hypocrisy all the more clear and painful as he morphs from timid ingénu to a vocal advocate for a new artistic age, a surrogate conscience who divests Rothko of his pretensions and delusions of infallibility. He is Lear's Fool in a painter's overalls. Rothko's tragedy is not Lear's, his children are his paintings and they outlive him, but nothing would sate his vanity more than the comparison- an equatable suffering to a titan of literature. Sterling stuff again from the Donmar.