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Red rehearsals: Red at London Wyndham’s Theatre

RedIt’s all red in the vaulted rehearsal room. The black has not yet swallowed the red as Rothko once said was his only fear, a foretelling perhaps of his suicide twelve years after this multi-award-winning play, Red, is set in 1958. Mammoth replica canvases in the spirit of Rothko’s famous Seagram Murals are stacked casually around the rehearsing space, the same basketball pitch size as Rothko’s pop-up studio in The Bowery in New York. Also, conveniently, the same size as the proscenium stage of the Wyndham Theatre in the West End where this show for everyone who cares about art and the future of art will be opening at the Wyndham’s Theatre on 15 May until 28 July. (Previews from 4 May.)

Rothko wanted his work to be viewed close up, nose almost to the canvas not a respectable gallery viewing distance away. Red based on scrupulous research by the playwright John Logan is our opportunity to do this with Rothko the man, the artist and also as a resurrected specimen of those iconic master artists who stay relevant, becoming stacked in the timeline that’s art’s historic succession rather than being superseded, their power not extinguished by the new modern.

What’s it like to be such a talent?

Rothko was one of the geniuses at the heart of the mould-breaking movement known as Abstract Expressionism which shifted the focus in art from old Paris to New York. But in the late fifties when Red is set times were changing again, another upstart movement was emerging, Pop art. Rauschenberg, Lichtenstein, Warhol. The old mould-breakers were having the mould they’d refashioned broken again. It’s the way of art but as a creative master, it can be a terrifying, precarious place to be.

Rothko is played again in this production by Alfred Molina, who played the role to critical acclaim when this same distinguished creative team, including Michael Grandage as director and Christopher Oran as set designer, despatched this Donmar originating production to Broadway to win six Tony awards in 2010.

Ken, Rothko’s new assistant, formerly Eddie Redmayne, is replaced in this new production by Alfred Enoch ( Aeneas in BBC’s recent Troy). Ken’s the upstart young artist, representing the new, in the studio to learn at the feet of a master. But as Leonardo Da Vinci is supposed to have said, poor is the pupil who does not surpass his master.

What do you see? Rothko asks Ken.

For all the onstage tensions between these two, they are ultimately united, as artists are, in their mutual passion, the creation of art. The staging of this show is designed to give its audience an insight into the craft of the creative process, showing the glorious priming of a canvas on stage among the sort of paraphernalia known to have been used by Rothko in his studio.

There’s an endearing connection between Rothko and London though he’s popularly perceived as an artist who’s one of New York’s own. The pictures he’s painting at the time of the play are the Seagram Murals, a commission intended for the new Four Seasons restaurant, an eating destination for the wealthy power brokers of New York. Rothko, however, decided these chattering diners were the wrong audience. He returned the commission monies and before he died, he sent them to the Tate in London, where they can be viewed by us all for free in Tate Modern.

This production was originally shown in the Donmar Warehouse, which only seats 250, then for a limited 3 month run or so on Broadway. Michael Grandage describes putting this production on again in the West End as ‘unfinished business.’ His decision to enable this play to be seen by a much larger audience in London, a city with a huge appetite for art, sympathetically reflects Rothko’s own decision to hang the Seagram Murals in our London gallery.

Even the ticket pricing of Red honours this spirit with 25% of the tickets, across all levels of the auditorium, being sold at £10. Ensuring even artists can afford to go. As Michael Grandage said, ‘Here in London we’re all Ken.’

Wyndham’s Theatre
4th May – 28th July 2018


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