What do you see?
This question opens John Logan's play "Red" which is currently being staged by the Melbourne Theatre Company. The play features Colin Friels as the painter Mark Rothko and André de Vanny as his assistant Ken. Within the confines of Rothko's studio, they debate art, philosophy, meaning and integrity.
Rothko and abstract expressionism
Although he rejected the label, Mark Rothko is typically defined as an abstract expressionist artist. This style of art flourished in New York from the 1940s to the 1960s. It emphasises the process of painting rather than the depiction of objects or images. Rothko's most famous paintings are comprised of radiantly hazy rectangles of colour.
Red is set over a two-year period commencing in 1958. It begins when Rothko wins a commission to paint a series of murals for the exclusive Four Seasons restaurant. The play explores his conflict about the project and the commercialisation of his art. He is particularly concerned about losing control of how his paintings will be seen.
Integrity and success
With just two actors and one set, Logan's play depends heavily on dialogue. As Rothko, Friels strides about the stage lecturing and hectoring Ken. He criticises him for being ignorant about art and about life. At the same time, he preaches the meaning and magnitude of his own paintings. For Rothko, art is about tragedy. His essential intention is to provoke an emotional reaction in all who view his work. Throughout the play he insists on the significance of his artistic vision.
However as Ken points out, such high-minded claims are a little diminished by Rothko's acceptance of the commission. There is tension here between integrity and success. Much of Ken's role involves challenging Rothko on this issue. Initially Ken is deferential toward his employer. But gradually both he and the audience see Rothko's bold proclamations as unsteady. It is as if Rothko is trying to convince himself that his art truly has the power he claims for it.
Under Alkinos Tsilimidos's direction, both actors are effective in conveying these subtle shifts in confidence. The entire performance is well staged although it is not without some difficulties. The play aims to balance Rothko's statements about his art against the friction around his decision to accept and then ultimately reject the commission. It is a tricky act and not entirely successful. Somehow the drama seems lost. Rothko eventually recognises his paintings do not have the potency to overwhelm the vulgarity of their setting in the Four Seasons restaurant. He likewise begins to see he can not control the way his work is perceived. These are devastating realisations. But their impact is curiously and disappointingly subdued.
What do you see?
Throughout the play, Rothko asks Ken repeatedly what he sees when he looks at the paintings. The audience could ask themselves the same question as they watch this performance. Rothko's admirers will most likely find much of interest here. Others, however, may be less intrigued. The play raises many thought-provoking ideas but perhaps does not explore them as vibrantly as it might.
Rothko claims his paintings only live in the eyes of a sensitive and astute viewer. The same may be true of Logan's play. In either case, an observation Ken makes in the play seems fitting,
Ultimately, the art must speak for itself.
Red is playing at the Melbourne Theatre Company until 5 May.
Photocredit: MTC, photographer Jeff Busby