I’m with Ken (Alfred Enoch) when it comes to the sort of abstract art that Mark Rothko (Alfred Molina) was known for. “What do you see?” Rothko wants to know. “Red,” replies Ken. But Rothko is not the sort of person that understands what ‘red’ is on its own, so when red is suggested as a colour to be added to a bucket of paint that is already a mixture of a variety of shades, he explodes – figuratively speaking, of course. ‘Red’ isn’t specific enough; it is a mere suggestion. He does have a point. A quick look at the ‘Dulux Colour Palette’ reveals that there’s no ‘red’. The sort of red in a red ballpoint pen is Volcanic Red, but there’s Jasmine Shimmer, Spring Rose, Blossom White, Sweet Pink, Blush Pink, Pretty Pink, Satin Bow, Love Note (don’t ask), Berry Smoothie, Fuchsia Lily, Raspberry Bellini, Pepper Red, Raspberry Diva, Roasted Red, Salsa Red, Cranberry Crunch, Sumptuous Plum, Redcurrent Glory, Monarch and Ruby Starlet.
Thus far, I’ve made Red sound like a show that gets bogged down in the details. If it does so, this is quite deliberate, in its portrayal of a painter that is, perhaps by necessity, obsessed with perfecting every aspect of his work. Molina’s Rothko is bitter and bad-tempered, because people don’t understand his art. I don’t know about everyone else, but I know I don’t get his sort of paintings: if I were ever to see something like it in an art gallery, I would need to read the description next to it to even begin to appreciate what it is supposed to represent.
The show doesn’t in any way change that view: his creation of a mural to hang in some restaurant or other seems to involve a lot of red and black. At least he actually goes to the restaurant once it is opened to see the situation for himself, and finally sees the light – people are going to the restaurant to eat, drink and converse, not to glare at paintings and be mesmerised by them. Rothko, frankly (or this version of him, anyway), is an idiot – he objects to knives and forks clinking against plates in a restaurant. That is like objecting to beer being served in a pub.
Rothko is, however, intense and passionate, and rightly instructs his employee Ken to indulge in reading classics and develop an understanding of “philosophy, theology, literature, poetry, drama, history, archaeology, anthropology, mythology, music”. The scene changes are nothing to write home about, meanwhile – quite dull, really – music accompanied by the changing of canvasses, which I couldn’t see the point of, apart from one scene where some paint is actually applied to a blank canvas (not the same, as Rothko points out, as ‘painting’).
The actors’ performances are excellent, given what they have to work with, and the Saturday matinee performance I attended did, in the end, deserve the standing ovation given. An intriguing piece of theatre with some good insights into Rothko’s life and work, even if we’ve been here before at a macro level – he wasn’t the first Tortured Artist, and he won’t be the last.
London lad, loving life and all that it has to offer.