Review: John Logan's brilliant Rothko play Red acted with humour and intensity

Jane Hardy
12 April, 2017 10:00

Red at The Lyric Theatre in Belfast

MARK Rothko's life always seems visible in his vast canvases, with the last few paintings before his suicide dominated by black. Yet in John Logan's brilliant play Red, which opened in Prime Cut's production at the Lyric Theatre on Tuesday, the relationship between the art and the life seems more complex.

This wordy, Tom Stoppard-style drama opens when Patrick O'Kane drags his apprentice Ken (Thomas Finnegan) to look at one of his paintings. "What do you see?" he snarls. "Red" is the answer and the meaning of that red threads through the subsequent compelling hour and three quarters.

This play, acted with humour and intensity by both actors, is about nothing less than why we need art. And what the hell it's all about from the 20th century onwards.

As the two artists start work on Rothko's great 1958 commission, paintings for the Four Seasons restaurant in New York's Seagram building, we discover that the great man is troubled. He resents the encroachment of his peers – notably Jackson Pollock, a romantic who drank and got killed in an Oldsmobile ("lazy suicide" judges Rothko semi-humorously).

He fears the rising generation, including Warhol, and he detests the materialism and marketing of the art world, although he's pocketed a nice cheque for his commission.

O'Kane gives a terrific account of someone leading a life of noisy desperation.

Inevitably, in a play about modern America, we get a load of Nietszche. Ken's analysis of Rothko and Jackson Pollock as the intellectual and sensuous poles, Apollo and Dionysus, is interesting but not the whole story. Rothko invests a lot, that is everything, in his work and his reaction to it is nothing but emotional. When Ken, looking a bit like a young Dustin Hoffman, says about a canvas "It's only a painting" he threatens to explode. We, of course, laugh.

One passage that almost unbalances the play is the scene in which Ken reveals his parents were murdered. He is reminded of this by the dried blood colour of Maroon no 4 on the canvas he and Rothko have just painted. The scene was well acted but a bit soap operatic.

It does, however, serve as a prelude to the moment later on when Ken discovers his boss out for the count. With red paint on his arms, Rothko looks as if he might have ended it all. It turns out that he's just passed out after realising his masterworks shouldn't be shown among snobbish New Yorkers worrying about their next cocktail.

What Rothko ends is not his life but his commission, regaining integrity. But then he fires his employee. As Ken exits, we hear the life of the street, suddenly silenced as the door closes.

Emma Jordan directs with precision, and the soundtrack, moving from Mozart to Chet Baker, indicates the movement from a European past to an American future. Although the accents are a little mobile, this is a great production.

:: Until April 22,

12 April, 2017 10:00 Arts