BWW Reviews: Evocative and Memorable RED at Theatre on the Bay
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by David Fick
I really wanted to see Kickstart's production of John Logan's play, RED, when it was on at the National Arts Festival earlier this year. The problem was that it was a really hot ticket and, try as I might, I simply could not get one. When I heard that the production would run briefly at Theatre on the Bay in Cape Town three months later, I made sure that I would be able to see it. And, I am pleased to say, that the wait was worth it.
The play itself is a remarkable piece of writing. Set at the very end of the 1950s, the play is set against the backdrop of Mark Rothko's commission by Joseph Seagram and Sons to create a series of paintings for The Four Seasons, the luxurious restaurant that would be located in their new building on Park Avenue. In a series of extended, but episodic scenes, each one crafted like a fully formed painting in a series. In the play, Logan provides Rothko, a neurotic intellect who finds inspiration in Greek tragedy, Freud, Jung and Nietzsche, a foil off of which to play in the form of an assistant, Ken. Ken is a young artist dealing with his own issues, his own artistic obsessions with Andy Warhol and Jackson Pollock and that ever constant struggle experienced by those involved in any artistic endeavour, just where the line between artistic integrity and selling out is drawn. Although Rothko sets up the boundaries of their relationship very clearly at the start of the play – he will be Ken's employer, not a father-figure, therapist or anything else – the play is a testament to the human desire to connect with others, much as the artist seeks to connect with his audience through the medium in which he or she works.
I am by no means a fan of Logan's work on the whole. Although he has had some remarkable commercial and artistic success with films like GLADIATOR, THE AVIATOR and HUGO, I feel that he more often than not misses the point of the subjects he tackles. Take his work on SWEENEY TODD for instance, a melodrama that in the hands of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler (with some not inconsiderable help from Christopher Bond, who wrote the play on which their version of the legend was based) had been moulded into a fully fleshed, genuine tragedy of classical proportions. Under the guidance of Tim Burton, whose vision prizes aesthetic over all, Logan stripped away the tragic resonance of the work, leaving behind a less complex and rather dissatisfying demon barber of Fleet Street to be preserved for posterity on the silver screen. In contrast, RED finds Logan in top form. I would even go as far to say that RED represents his best work. It is meaty, complex and deliciously ambiguous. It is the kind of play that gives its director and actors scope to play, a play about the making of art that lets everyone involved in the production make art, and one that an audience member who returns for a second viewing might find shifts dramatically, the way a great painting changes upon repeated viewings.
This production, directed by Steven Stead and starring Michael Richard as Rothko, with Jeremy Richard as Ken, is top notch too. Stead skilfully taps into the rhythm of the play, approaching each scene with just the right attack so that each plays out as a tiny drama in its own right while still pushing the play forward to its resolution. This being very much an actor-driven play, he is fortunate to have a pair of great actors in the Richards, who are father and son in real life – a connection that adds an ineffable, but moving dynamic to the relationship between Rothko and Ken. As Rothko, Michael Richard is fierce and uncompromising on the surface, but manages to convey the terror and suffering that the artist himself must face in the creation of his work. His performance is rangy and has the stamp of mastery about it. Jeremy Richard, as Ken, hits the mark in his depiction of the character's growth in confidence as the months of employ progress and contrives some fine emotional moments as Ken's past is revealed and how those revelations affect his relationship with Rothko.
This being a play about art, in which reproductions of Rothko's work are present and thrillingly recreated on stage, the design leaps out at one more overtly than it usually might. Greg King has brilliantly designed Rothko's studio, which is evocatively lit by Tina le Roux.
In his art, Rothko was trying to express the fundamental emotions of the human experience. In this play about Rothko, Logan has created a piece that expresses these emotions in a way that Rothko himself might have admired. In this production, Stead and the Richards have brought Logan’s work to life superbly. The run in Cape Town is short. Miss it at your own peril.
RED runs at the Theatre on the Bay until 3 November. Bookings can be made through Computicket.