Red alert: Art meets drama in Lyric play based on the life of Mark Rothko

Visual and performance art fuse at Belfast's Lyric Theatre in a powerful play exploring the life of one of the world's most famous artists. Jenny Lee speaks to Belfast actor Patrick O'Kane, who plays the role of Mark Rothko

Patrick O’Kane plays the role of Russian-born expressionist painter Mark Rothko in John Logan's play Red at Belfast's Lyric Theatre

"STAND closer. You've got to get close. Let it pulsate. Let it work on you. Closer. Too close. There. Let it spread out. Let it wrap its arms around you; let it embrace you, filling your peripheral vision so nothing else exists or has ever existed or will ever exist. Let the picture do its work – but work with it. Meet it halfway, for God’s sake."

These are some of the opening lines from Red, a new co-production between Prime Cut Productions and the Lyric theatre, which captures the dynamic relationship between an artist and his creations.

Set in New York in 1958 and based the life of Mark Rothko, an abstract expressionist painter of Russian Jewish descent, it was written by playwright and top Hollywood screenwriter John Logan (Gladiator, The Aviator, Skyfall) – whose parents, incidentally, came from Northern Ireland. It was first produced by Covent Garden's Donmar Warehouse in 2009 before transferring to Broadway, where it received six Tony Awards, including Best Play.

Playing the demanding role of Rothko is Belfast actor Patrick O'Kane. Rather than being auditioned for the role, O'Kane was actually the instigator of this new production.

"I knew of Rothko and had been wowed by his work in London. His paintings have an immediate impact on people; it's almost religious-like. I'd came across the play a number of years ago and I mentioned it to Prime Cut's artistic director Emma Jordan," O'Kane tells me.

Red captures Rothko at the height of his career just after receiving the art world’s largest commission to create a series of murals for The Four Seasons restaurant in the new Seagram building on New York's Park Avenue.

When his new assistant, the aspiring painter Ken (Thomas Finnegan) begins to brashly question Rothko's theories of art and his employer's integrity in accepting a commission to work on such a commercial project, combative dialogue turns into fierce clashes between the two characters.

Ken represents the new generation of artists that threaten Rothko’s rule, and challenges his employer’s dismissal of pop art, and what unfolds is a masterclass of questions and answers about the methods and purpose art.

"I think pop art is great. It's witty and lively but when you put it alongside the Rothkos and Jackson Pollocks, it does feel inferior. Maybe that's just the head space I'm in at the minute," says O'Kane.

And how does he get into the mindset of Rothko?

"He's rigorous. He's intellectually, emotionally and spiritually demanding to the point of being a bully, I suppose. He's so insistent on seeing beyond the superficial and commercial transaction of the art industry. But for him it's all about communication to people and that requires generosity."

Rothko, who took his own life in February 1970, in his New York studio, viewed his art very seriously and wrote a number of essays and critical reviews during his lifetime. These writings, The Artist's Reality: Philosophies of Art, were published 30 years after his death and highlighted his philosophy of art.

Red combines the power of drama and visual art and O'Kane points out that there was a very physical and theatrical dimension to Rothko's work.

"Rothko used very thin paint and painted layer after layer. They were very quick drying, therefore he had to cover these canvases really quickly. It does become quite a physical act to perform," he says.

"He was particularly interested in the relationship of art to the viewer. He was a heavyweight academic and was interested in the social aspect of art and it's relationship between art, artist and viewer.

"Art is about deepening the history of human life. Red and Rothko's work challenge us about how much we are willing to invest, not just financially, but personally in the creative process. He would go to great pain to establish the right environment – lighting was incredibly important to him, as well as the height at which his paintings hung and how close people should stand in order to maximise the painting's impact.

"When you go to the Tate Modern and see those paintings – some of which are the subject of this play Red – and you stand there, it's incredible what starts to happen," adds O'Kane, whose uncle was an art teacher and who admits to having dabbled in painting himself.

"I did try, but I'm not very good at it," he laughs.

Like Rothko, O'Kane has explored the creative and collaborative role of artists, in his case actors. In 2012 as a fellow of UK innovation charity Nesta, he published a probing collection of interviews entitled: Actors' Voices, an expansive inquiry into the profession and the art form.

"I was interested in the role of the actor within the creative hierarchy of physical theatre. I was also interested in how people viewed actors, both within the industry and beyond. I ended up producing a series of discourses with a broad range of actors. They were very personal stories combined with an analysis of different people's processes and a broader study on art, culture and society and where artists fit in," he explains.

His conclusion?

"Well, you can't make theatre without an actor. It isn't to diminish the role of other artists within the theatre-making process, but all you really need is people and words and you have theatre."

O'Kane, who last appeared in the Lyric theatre in Owen McCafferty's Quietly, returns to the Belfast stage following his role as Caravaggio in the Royal Shakespeare Company's The Seven Acts of Mercy.

Among his career highlights are two years in the West End production of War Horse and a role in the HBO series Game of Thrones.

"Like many, my role in Game of Thrones was brief," he laughs. "Very impressive though – it was the proper big Hollywood experience. War Horse, I did over 500 performances and never got bored of it. The impact it had on audiences was incredible."

And after Red, would he like to get involved in some of John Logan's screen work?

"Of course, I wouldn't say no. He's very accomplished."

Next up for O'Kane is the title role in Woyzeck in Winter, a fusion of two masterpieces: Büchner's Woyzeck and Schubert's Die Winterreise. The play will have it's premiere at this July's Galway International Arts Festival, before moving to London's Barbican Theatre.

"Both pieces are usually performed in the German language and sung in an operatic style. We are singing it in a theatre style in English, which is a radical departure," says O'Kane.

:: Prime Cut Productions and the Lyric Theatre present Red at Belfast's Lyric Theatre from April 8-23. For tickets and more information see

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