November 16th, 2022
Art is messy work, never more so than in Red, the Tony Award winning play from American screenwriter John Logan, and IO Performance’s latest production for their 2022 season.
Famous painter Mark Rothko has hired young artist Ken as his new assistant while he works on his latest commission: A series of murals, to be hung in the Four Seasons restaurant in the Seagram building in New York City. Mark is a smoker, and a drinker, but by no means a slacker. He keeps regular business hours in his studio and makes it clear to Ken they are there to work. Of course, Rothko has quite a generous view of what exactly constitutes work: “Most of painting is thinking…ten percent is putting paint on to the canvas. The rest is waiting.”
Rothko is a strange and ornery man. He’s an abstract expressionist; an art movement which, in this late 1950’s setting, is becoming superfluous as pop art rises in the public esteem. The threat of obsolescence has made Rothko paranoid, and proud. He is still capable, even prolific, but spends much of his time “painting” discussing the meaning and purpose of art. He has a glass in his hand as often as a brush.
Ken is hungry and dedicated and, above all, young. An appreciator of the fashionable artistic voices that Rothko decries, the differences in the pairs’ sensibilities are regularly on display (Rothko laments how public focus has shifted away from the worthy to the fun, the superficial. Ken responds that not all art need be psychodrama). And while Ken is indeed the proverbial Young Turk, an aspiring painter in his own right, the relationship between the two that develops is somehow both less combative and less intimate than one might expect. They clash at various points of the play, generally ignited by Rothko lashing out against a perceived slight, but their connection is one based more on mutual respect than personal like or dislike, and much of their bond, in particular the effect Ken has on Rothko, goes unsaid.
Rothko’s studio, where the play is set, is the perfect place for him to create. A world away from society, where even natural light is prevented from intruding. A perfect setting for the stage, the ratty NYC workspace with its endless drop sheets and red, red, red has been wonderfully realised by Grace Roberts and director Kirsty Mangelsdorf, who also organised the effective sound design, with a portable record player in a corner of the set providing most of the diegetic sound. The lighting design, by Chris Jackson, is fittingly seedy, with Rothko using a dimmer to view his works under different lighting conditions. In one striking moment, the stage flashes green, turning all the abundant reds on stage to a shocking black.
Red is a remarkably well-crafted play. Many of the story beats will feel conventional, even hackneyed, to audience members familiar with this kind of changing of the guard tale, but Red is a clean and brutally efficient expression of this kind of story. Everything Rothko and Ken say deepens our understanding of their characters, sometimes in surprising ways. In one instance, Rothko rails against collectors for whom art is merely a status symbol, and he cites many tired observations of the ignorant, including the well-worn “my kid could paint that”. He does not rebut that point directly, but its inaccuracy is betrayed whenever Rothko passionately describes his influences (Rembrandt, Caravaggio, Picasso), detailing what he has learnt from each in such a way that the skill and technique he applies to his own work becomes clear.
Oliver Johns, onstage with IO for the second time this year following a role in Let the Right One In in June, does particularly fine work here. Ken, with his wrongfooted suggestions and comments on Rothko’s work early in the play, could easily have been played with swagger and unearned confidence. Johns avoids this, wisely portraying Ken as friendly, polite, and respectful, so that these blunders in Ken’s conduct feel like an earnest attempt to engage with Rothko, rather than an artless means of impressing him. Not only does this approach provide a better counterpoint to Rothko’s bitter demeanour, but it also ensures that later moments where Ken’s passion does lead him to outburst and insolence land with much greater impact. A monologue towards the end where he rails against Rothko for his cold and aloof manner is a showstopper, Johns finding natural rhythms that generated real momentum on stage. Really excellent stuff, definitely a performance to see.
Leigh Oswin as Rothko likewise displays an intelligent level of restraint, but of a different nature, refusing instead to lean too far into sentiment. Oswin’s take on Rothko is pointedly not a facsimile of the man (a challenging task in any event as there are few surviving recordings of Rothko speaking). However, Rothko, by many accounts, increasingly saw himself throughout his life as isolated and misunderstood, so it is fitting that even at the most high-impact moments Oswin keeps Rothko at a certain emotional distance from Ken, refusing to completely drop his defensive wit and posture. To do otherwise may have felt disingenuous, too easy an answer for this play.
At around ninety minutes, the piece never feels too long, but its pacing is so steady and sedate that it often feels as though too little time was spent considering the dynamics of each scene and exploring their individual dramatic shape. First-time director Kirsty Mangelsdorf (this show is part of IO Performance’s emerging director’s series) has done a wonderful job bringing the piece together though, and there were true moments of life throughout. A scene where the two actors apply an undercoat for one of Rothko’s paintings in tandem is a delightful and energising sequence, a much needed shot of adrenaline to the action.
There were, however, some odd vocal choices. Oswin is saddled with a thick accent which proved challenging to understand, particularly when he has a glass or cigarette in his mouth, which is much of the play. Johns fares better in this regard, but both could have improved their projection; there were words on opening night that did not reach the back row.
Red, despite dark themes, is not a sad play. It is frequently a funny play, Oswin’s dry humour as Rothko generating most of the laughs. I suspect it may also prove a timeless play, as it questions not just what art is, and what it means to create, but, most importantly, what it means to be an artist right now. It is a play about living your moment, respecting your predecessors, but also rejecting them. It is about the torch not being passed on, but actively stolen. It is a fascinating snapshot of two distinct stages in the life cycle of an artist. It may literally have paint drying on stage, but do not be fooled, this is a highly engaging and thoughtful piece of theatre. Book a ticket before it closes on the 19th.
Review By Ryan Politis