It’s 1958 New York, and the artist Mark Rothko is painting his Seagram Murals. The series of paintings, which can still be seen at the Tate Modern in London, have come to define the artist’s career. Both in what they evoke in their viewers, and the history around their conception and purpose. In just 90 minutes the tale of Rothko’s murals plays out and for a simple plot, never bores. Sometimes evoking Beckett’s Waiting For Godot, this two-man play makes you think without forcing it.
Originally a commission for the Four Season’s restaurant in the Seagram Building that Rothko hoped would put rich diners off their food, this real-life story as embellished by John Logan’s impeccable script is full of torment, expression, and a wonderful dark humour that often has the audience chuckling.
Here we have Rothko and his assistant Ken. Art master meets fresh-faced student who naively tells Rothko his favourite artist is Jackson Pollock during their first encounter. Their dynamic grows from frosty awkward beginnings into a closeness that bypasses small talk, descending into rows where the student declares that audiences “sometimes just want a still life”, but is ultimately based on a cerebral respect.
Alfred Molina as Rothko is a force. A brewing storm of a performance, Molina manages to capture the essence of this philosophical, ponderous and troubled artist perfectly. While Alfred Enoch – in an accomplished West End debut – as Ken is strong as the idealistic foil, who simultaneously learns from and teaches the master. Molina and Enoch successfully balance each other in a play where one could easily overshadow the other.
Christopher Oram’s set is what really makes Red. The splashes of red paint evoke both artistry and butchery, the astounding copies of the murals themselves draw you in, the lights – low as Rothko insisted on – strangely relax you; it all comes together as a remarkable studio on stage, that makes you feel like you are really looking into this world.
This is a real triumph. What debuted on the West End in 2009, and has since achieved roaring success on Broadway, still astounds. You see Red, and then some.
Red is playing at the Wyndam’s Theatre until 28 July
Photo: Johan Persson