MTC, Red, Photo- Jeff Busby
MTC, Red, Photo- Jeff Busby

While most people wouldn’t know exactly who Rothko is, many would be familiar with at least some of his paintings. The large canvasses of blocks of pulsating colours were a form of abstract expressionism that sat well in many environments – including upmarket homes, where a Rothko was often a perfect accompaniment to a modern designer’s colour scheme.

Mark Rothko struggled though with the commodification of his work and Red, amongst other things, delves in to his conflict when he accepts a lucrative commission in 1958 to paint a number of canvasses for the swanky New York restaurant The Four Seasons.

Fans of the TV series Mad Men may remember a Rothko painting on Cooper’s office wall, and Red has resonances of that TV show in the shape of Rothko’s assistant, Ken, who appears in the first scene looking and sounding every inch like the young advertising account man Pete. Like Pete, Ken (modelled very loosely on Rothko’s real life assistant Dan Rice) is the voice of the new generation – hip to the appeals of the new wave of pop artists, epitomised by Andy Warhol – whose job is of course to displace the orthodoxy, which Rothko (to his own dismay) now represents.

The play takes the form of a sort of Socratic dialogue – the initially naive questions of the assistant bring forth from his “titanically self- absorbed” Master a series of wordy lectures on the meaning of art, colour and the meaning of life. As Ken’s confidence grows their conversation becomes more argumentative, leading to an unusual instance in the theatre when opening night audience members clapped after some of the monologues.

The prolific John Logan, who is known as a screenwriter of such films as The Aviator, Gladiator, Hugo and Coriolanus, has filled the script of Red chocker-block with fascinating information that teeters just this side of didactic. The dialogue, delivered at break neck speed is pretty much incessant, broken up by music marking the passage of time and occasionally by painting business, the best of which is a rare of scene of cooperation between the two characters as they feverishly prime a massive red canvass.

Red is A Tony Award winning play, and a quick scan of the internet shows multiple productions in Australia and across the globe. Its popularity would to a large part rest on the fact it is such a ‘star vehicle’ – the role of Rothko calls for virtuosic strength and charisma – and Colin Friels has these qualities in spades. For ninety minutes, Friels fills the stage as he paces and rants in an intense outpouring of Rothko’s obsessive passion for his art, and his struggle (and fascination) with his inner darkness.

As Ken, Andre de Venny has a suitable youthful energy and convincingly portrays the journey of the assistant from acolyte to independent, equal thinker. However de Venny’s relative inexperience on the live stage is evident in his delivery, which is lost occasionally in the empty space of the stage. Director Alkinos Tsilimodos is also a newcomer to live theatre after directing many films including Blind Company (which also featured Colin Friels).

Rothko’s New York studio was a converted gymnasium, and so the whole of the MTC stage, right up to the rear brick walls, becomes the set, designed by Tristan Meredith.   Filling the mammoth space are a number of canvasses, works in progress, a sink, shelves holding brushes and paints and a record player. In essence the set is another character of the play, imposing in its size, and an important reflection of Rothko’s life.

Red requires a lot of concentration from the audience – so many ideas and words in such a short amount of time, and one would be hard pressed to catch them all in one sitting. But as an entertaining and engaging snapshot of an important artist of our time, Red succeeds.

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