John Logan’s Tony Award winning play Red opened at QPAC last week, bringing the art world to the theatre stage.
Presented by the Queensland Theatre Company and imported from the Melbourne Theatre Company, under the direction of Alkinos Tsilimidos, Red takes a look at the life of abstract painter Mark Rothko, as he undertakes the largest art commission of the 1950s; to paint a series of murals for the new high class Four Seasons restaurant on Park Avenue.
Rothko is conflicted about taking the lucrative commission, as Ken his assistant asks the question, is he selling out? But Rothko has his own agenda. He also sprouts on like a cranky old man with verbal diahareah and a bad case of self-righteous self-importance about the meaning or art and other art contemporaries and legends like Warhol, Van Gogh and Picasso.
Starring Colin Friels as Rothko was an observational masterclass in acting. The way he kneads and texturises each and every sentence was rich in detail and never pedestrian. The play opens with Rothko starring out towards the audience in deep contemplation at one of his works-in-progress, which he says is what most of his art is about – thinking and not painting. This silent scene went on for quite some time, and the audience was intrigued throughout. It takes an actor with a certain gravitas to hold an audience while essentially doing nothing.
And indeed Friels also held the attention of Melbourne audiences as he just received the Green Room Award for Best Actor (Theatre), for his portrayal of Mark Rothko in MTC’s production of Red.
Joining Friels onstage was young Tom Barton who played Ken his assistant, protégé, and the new generation of artists and art forms. Over their two-year working engagement, Ken grows from a naïve, enthusiastic art student and verbal punching bag of the tyrannical rants of Rothko to a confident artist and human being, confronting his master as he challenges Rothko’s motives and ideas as he forms his own views on art.
While such unceasing pulpit rants, especially in the first half hour the play bordered on overwhelm for the audience’s ear, I did ask myself the question “would this have been better as a radio play or novel?” My second thought was “How dare I question an award winning play?” But being a scholar and enquirer of theatre, one should question and pontificate what we have seen in order to understand it, and the world better. And upon such pontificating, I quickly came to the conclusion that this sort of verbose text for this type of play does have a place in the theatre for the simple fact that one of the purposes of theatre is to educate as well as provide a glimpse into other lives and sub-cultures we wouldn’t normally experience. I might not read a book about art but I will certainly go to the theatre. So it was apt that my introduction to the art world be through this medium. It has actually given some insight into the working (and sometimes broken) mind of my own sister who was an artist. So it not only educates us laymen on the art world, but on the human condition of the artists themselves.
Set in a dimly lit secluded artist’s warehouse (because Rothko found natural light too cruel for his paintings), the designer Shaun Gurton beautifully set the scene in Rothko’s workshop amongst his mural painting in various stages of progress. Lighting designing by Matt Scott was especially well placed, revealing the various times of day shining through the high warehouse windows. The attention to detail was especially impressive when the swirling police and ambulance siren lights actually moved across the window rather than constructing stagnant flickering of red and blue. The soundscape by Tristan Meredith was complimentary to the city scene outside of the warehouse with only classical music (and occasional jazz), giving life to the silence inside the high warehouse walls.
For a glimpse into the art world and the mind of Mark Rothko, go and see Red, playing in the Playhouse Theatre at QPAC until 19 May.