Red – Lyric Theatre – Review by Cathy Brown
A co-production by Prime Cut Productions & the Lyric Theatre
Written by John Logan
08 – 22 April
It is 1958 in New York City. The uncompromising and irascible Mark Rothko (Patrick O’Kane) has just accepted a commission to create a series of murals for the Four Seasons restaurant in the Seagram building on Park Avenue. He has taken on an assistant, Ken (Thomas Finnegan), an aspiring artist, whose life so far has been filled with the kind of drama and tragedy that Rothko attempts to capture in his art.
Emma Jordan’s passionate and intelligent production of John Logan’s Red, opens with Rothko framed within one of his famous murals and the initial scenes give the impression of the play as an art lecture, as Rothko chides Ken for the gaps in his philosophical knowledge and muses on how his art needs to be controlled to be understood. However the drama comes alive as Ken starts to challenge Rothko on colour theory, pop art and eventually Rothko’s own integrity in taking on a commission to create art for a dining room which will be filled with the kind of people he so despises.
Rothko said that ‘a picture lives by companionship, expanding and quickening in the eyes of the sensitive observer’ and this production takes that idea and applies it to the artist himself. As Rothko is sensitively observed by his companion, their relationship grows and expands. Here are two men who are rootless – the Jewish émigré and the orphaned child, both searching for answers through art. Their intellectual arguments brim with a fraught oedipal passion.
Patrick O’Kane excels as the troubled, troubling artist, conveying the fierce intensity of a man whose work is a direct result of his own internal battles. Thomas Finnegan, so good in last year’s Here Comes The Night on the same stage, more than holds his own, as the terrified pupil who eventually teaches his master a few lessons of his own. The two actors glide around each other in a twisted pas de deux, while Dylan Quinn’s subtle choreography gives the scene changes a graceful momentum.
What the production does best though is what Rothko himself tried to do in his work. It makes visual art dramatic. Like the pulsing that Rothko strives for in his painting, director Emma Jordan creates a pulsating, vital drama that focuses on the intense physicality of the process of making art. From the mixing of the paints, to the nailing of the canvases, this is art in all its messy, muscular glory. A central scene where the two men paint a base coat on a blank canvas is an exhilarating frenzied spectacle.
Ciaran Bagnall’s set strewn with huge red murals cleverly plays on the idea of frames and canvas while the lighting design is tonally as you would expect without being overdone.
Emma Jordan’s thrilling, actor-driven production is a portrait of the artist as a working man and perfectly captures Rothko’s relationship not only with his assistant, but with his paintings. Above all, this beautiful and dauntless production leads you back to visit the work that inspired it and leaves you with that thrilling question – ‘What do you see?’