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Review of Red, directed by Michael Grandage at Wyndham’s Theatre

Alfred Molina (Mark Rothko), Alfred Enoch (Ken). photo by Johan Persson
Alfred Molina (Mark Rothko), Alfred Enoch (Ken). photo by Johan Persson

Red, directed by Michael Grandage, comes pre-loaded with accolades and awards from its first emergence in 2009 and 2010 in the Donmar and then on Broadway for limited periods. Its appearance at the Wyndham’s Theatre opens up the audience for the production put on by the same team as before except for Alfred Enoch who’s Rothko’s young assistant Ken this time, formerly played by Eddie Redmayne.

It’s 1958 when the play opens and the former artistic mould breaker, Rothko, has become the living treasure of the establishment after Jackson Pollock’s death. He’s accepted a lucrative commission to paint thirty murals to be hung in a Manhattan restaurant for the very wealthy. The iconic Four Seasons. He says at one point he hopes they will give the diners indigestion. Red examines Rothko, artists and art through the lens of this commission. Research into events and circumstances described sufficiently to satisfy any art historian and an artist curious to know.

Alfred Molina plays Rothko with deep knowingness and sensitivity, giving the impression of a bear of an isolated character unwilling to restrain himself by the civilising qualities of civility and empathy in his own studio. Where he makes his art he will be real and powerful whatever the price. This is his lair where he quests for his place in history’s line of art’s geniuses. Rembrandt, Rothko and Turner is a refrain of intent. It’s outside he feels the chilly risk of possible insignificance, which is the wind that young Ken brings with him.

There are only two cast members on stage throughout with a single set as a third element. There’s much humour to lighten with a foretelling of Rothko’s suicide twelve years later as shade.

Alfred Enoch plays Ken, Rothko’s young studio assistant and artist with light nimbleness. Despite his tragic past, Ken represents the future. Alfred Enoch ably communicates on stage a different sense of spirit, of weight, to Rothko. What do you see? What do you feel? asks Rothko of him. The 1960’s and Pop Art is about to break. We never see Ken’s art, he dare not show it. He’s with Rothko to learn at a master’s feet but during the two years over which this piece is played out the changes, develops, gains confidence, venturing to challenge Rothko the artist in his lair. Making the old mould-breaker who forced art forwards from realism and Impressionism to Abstract Expressionism feel times change in his own studio, describing his artistic mould being broken in turn. It’s when Ken fully finds his voice Rothko lets him go. His last words to Ken are, ‘Go and make something new. ‘A timeless instruction to be heard by all artists in the audience too. Poor is the student who does not surpass his master, Leonardo Da Vinci is supposed to have said.

This satisfies. As does the clever dialogue about the balancing of form and feeling through the twins totems of Apollo and Dionysus, relevant in life as well as art. Back and forth, the rational must be weighed against the sense that is instinct. Tipping too far one way or the other has consequences. In Rothko’s art black is form, red is feeling. Rothko says the black grows, getting older.

Ken’s background of tragedy is problematic as a plot point in the play, however. His parents were murdered at home when he was a boy. While this ostensibly allows the character to be explored, both his and Rothko’s along with the contrasting significance of the colour white to Ken not red ( it was snowing) and Ken’s longing for a lost father. From the audience, this feels like more of a contrived dramatic mechanism, not true. Little poignancy is stirred from what should be a most troubling event. This affects the heart of the play below its dazzling surface.

The artistic process is explained by means of the set as well as through the dialogue. Christopher Oran’s replication of Rothko’s work is stunning. A table on stage is laid out with care and research exactly as Rothko’s own would have been. Non-artists in the audience are shown that painting, all art, is mostly craft combined with thought. Much thought. Weeks and months of thought sometimes. That somewhere in that small space between the learnt practical and the human brain is where the magic of our finest art happens. There’s the gorgeous pouring of paint. And a lovely, mobile scene in which Rothko and Ken prime a canvas as if they’re moving together in some artistic dance beyond the confines of their own time. Otherwise, there can sometimes be a sense of physical inertia on stage, with just the two characters and a single set it’s a wordplay, played at pace.

The use of music in the show is notable and lovely, being used to describe the differences between the two men on stage, old and young . Chet Baker or Beethoven? They’re joined, as they prime the canvas together, by a Gluck aria.

There’s much to enjoy in this play for artists and those who care about art and the future of art. There’s also many ten pound tickets, made available by Michael Grandage Productions during the run, so even our modern day Ken’s may be able to come too this time.

4 stars

Review by Marian Kennedy

Under the watchful gaze of his young assistant, and the threatening presence of a new generation of artists, Mark Rothko takes on his greatest challenge yet: to create a definitive work for an extraordinary setting. RED reunites John Logan and Michael Grandage following Peter and Alice with Judi Dench and Ben Whishaw which formed part of MGC’s inaugural season in the West End in 2013, and their feature film Genius.

MGC Artistic Director Michael Grandage directs this first ever UK revival since directing the world premiere at the Donmar Warehouse in 2009. The production went on to win six Tony Awards, including Best Play. Award-winning stage and screen actor Alfred Molina reprises his critically acclaimed performance as the American abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko. He is joined by rising star Alfred Enoch of US television drama series How to Get Away With Murder as his assistant Ken.

Red rehearsals: Red at London Wyndham’s Theatre

Booking Period: 4th May 2018 – 28th July 2018
Wyndham’s Theatre


1 thought on “Review of Red, directed by Michael Grandage at Wyndham’s Theatre”

  1. Yes, yes yes.

    We saw the original Donmar production and loved it. My “sort of review” linked through here: https://wp.me/p721Yk-18J includes links to a wonderful Donmar study pack on the play and production and also a public domain video with a clip from that original production.

    Highly recommended based on the original production and word that this revival is true to it.

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