What do you see?: Ensemble's RED

There is only one thing I fear in life, my friend…
One day, the black will swallow the red.

In the middle of his studio, Rothko sits, staring at a large (unseen) canvas, a cigarette burning in his fingers, his eyes eagerly darting around the large red expanse, the gaping hole on the wall. Around him lie the detritus and the carcases of his work: buckets splattered with dried and congealed paint the colour of blood; jars of pigments, boxes of receipts, bottles of Scotch, cartons of eggs; a phonograph, brushes, shelves overflowing. And behind him, a dropsheet covering a wall, spattered with dried paint in dark angry blobs. Enter Ken, Rothko’s new assistant, out-of-place in a grey suit. And Rothko asks him, ‘What do you see?’ 
It’s the underlying theme of the play – one of them, at least – the theme of looking, of seeing, of understanding and grappling with art. And, at times, it’s angry, it’s passionate, it’s impassioned, it’s frustrated, it’s defensive and defenceless; it’s human and intangible; emotional.
Written by John Logan, a film producer, playwright and screenwriter known for films such as The Aviator, Gladiator, Sweeney Todd, and the upcoming James Bond film Skyfall, RED premiered in London at the Donmar Warehouse in 2009, and has since gone on to win numerous Tony awards, including Best Play 2010. There’s an argument at the core of Logan’s play that is as timeless as Shakespeare, as relevant as it is to Mark Rothko and the Abstract Expressionists as it is to us now. It’s the argument of art’s purpose and place, of what art means to us – as individuals and as a societal group; Rothko wants us to have a profound emotional reaction, a very physical reaction to it, whereas Ken, his assistant, wants art to just be art, to be devoid of significance and meaning, just to be, to not aspire to be anything other than what it is. But if you dig a little deeper below the surface of the play, it’s not about art at all, but rather about contemporary society and our seemingly disposable commercial culture, the endless commodification of everything under the sun, a complacency that comes through the superfluousness – the proliferation – of the mundane. ‘Just like that,’ Rothko says, recalling a conversation he overheard between two people, ‘I’m a noun. A Rothko.’ 
It’s about Rothko – splendidly played in this production by Colin Moody, already in possession of an immensely powerful and commanding stage-presence, so much so that times he threatens to dominate even the replica Rothko hanging on a frame at the back of the space – confronting the fear of the black, the utter absence of life and light and vitality that threatens to overwhelm every one of his paintings. ‘[Our] tragedy is that we can never achieve that balance,’ he says. ‘We exist – all of us, for all time – in a state of perpetual dissonance… We long for the raw truth of emotion, but can only endure it with the cool lie of reason.’ Set around 1958 and 1959, the time when Rothko was working on a commission for the Four Seasons restaurant in New York, what are known as the Seagram murals, the play is also about Ken – the embodiment of the new generation of artists, the Warhols and the Lichtensteins, the Pop Artists; what Rothko dismisses as ‘zeitgeist art’ – and the way he talks about art, wanting it to just be. ‘We stomped [Cubism] to death,’ Rothko tells Ken near the beginning, explaining where his art is coming from. ‘The child must banish the father. Respect him, but kill him… Just be audacious and do it.’ At a pivotal moment in the play, Ken vehemently turns Rothko’s words against him, challenging – daring – him to see that perhaps what the Pop Artists are doing is exactly what he and his contemporaries did to Cubism, banishing the father, stomping it to death. Rothko – with all the fury of a giant raging against the dying of the light – sees what Ken is getting at and it leads him to refuse the Seagram commission and hand back the $35,000 fee.
It’s a bit like Rothko’s own The Agony and the Ecstasy, a thrilling emotional scream – a ‘gaping mouth letting out a silent howl of something feral and foul and primal and REAL. Not nice. Not final. Real. A moan of rapture,’ as he describes one of his own paintings – and the language, the tooing and froing of debate between the two men is exhilarating like nothing else. There are countless moments to love in Logan’s play, moments of transcendent passion and glory, sound and fury, the almost godlike abandon with which Rothko and Ken slather paint on a canvas, the lightning-fast arguments they have about understanding and comprehending art. There’s something in Logan’s writing that I adore, and it’s not just in this play, you can see it in his screenplays if you read them. There’s a certain robustness, a muscular thrill at the power of words to communicate an idea – ideas, plural – a reveling in their beauty and their brute strength to wound and carry and transport and beautify. If I had to choose, I would say Logan is my favourite writer working today because on the whole, his work is absolutely unbeatable, so ferociously and unapologetically scintillating and electrifying.
I don’t think there’s another play that I can recall that is as thrilling and as passionate and as impassioned as RED. Watching paint being hurled at a canvas with great big yard brushes, buckets of dark blood-red paint, dripping, splattering, saturating, covering them head to toe; arguing about the purpose and benefit of art and its effect on people, on our tastes and behaviour, on our consumption and commodification of art. ‘What do you see?’ Rothko asks at the end of the play. ‘Red,’ Ken replies, after a pause, and you cannot help but smile. It’s ‘red,’ yes, and it is a glib answer, but it’s the only answer, and yet it’s so much more than that at the same time as not; it’s just paint, it’s just a colour. It’s just RED.

What do you see?

The ‘Rothko’ referred to in this article is not the historical Markus Rothkowitz, painter, but rather John Logan’s theatrical character of Mark Rothko.
This video of the 2010 Broadway transfer of the London production - with Alfred Molina as Rothko, and Eddie Redmayne as Ken - has a nice snapshot of the play in action.

No comments:

Post a Comment