What is art? That is one of the questions at the heart of Red. Another concerns pretension.
American writer John Logan wrote Red about Russian-born painter Mark Rothko (25th September, 1903 – 25th February, 1970), who migrated to the USA at the age of 10.
The Broadway production won six Tony Awards in 2010, including Best Play.
Rothko is best known for the fields of colour, abstract canvases he produced from 1949 to 1970.
Red focuses on two-year period in Rothko’s life, during which he employed a young, budding, painter assistant named Ken.
Rothko had been commissioned to provide a group of murals for a new luxury restaurant, the Four Seasons, in a skyscraper on Park Avenue in New York.
He was being paid handsomely for the endeavour. At the time, it was the most expensive and lavish art commission in history.
Red presents Rothko as self-centred and fragile.
He paints indoors, with no natural light.
Everything is about him. He is dismissive of his assistant.
Existential angst is Rothko’s constant bedfellow.
His biggest concern appears to be that one day black will swallow red.
At play is his relevance and legacy.
When Ken opens up to him about his tortured past, Rothko listens and asks a series of questions, but is hardly empathetic.
As we see it, Rothko is used to waxing eloquently about art and artists. He talks about luminescence and movement in paintings.
He has his strong likes and dislikes. He has no time for the emergence of “pop artists”.
He barks instructions and loses his temper … frequently. He is cantankerous.
While he treats Ken as his lap dog – to run errands, mix paints, make frames and prime canvases – his assistant becomes increasingly emboldened.
More than once, matters come to a head.
The question must be asked, is Rothko selling his soul by taking on a commission to provide a series of paintings for a top-notch eatery?
With Jeremy Smith playing Mark Rothko and Zachary Hart as Ken, this production of Red at The MC Showroom is thoughtful and compelling.
Both are fine, intelligent and considered actors.
They allow space for the prose to breathe, which is essential for a work such as this, which raises issues about style and substance.
I greatly appreciated the way that Ken’s character grew as the story unfolded. Hart played that perfectly.
In Smith’s case, he brings Rothko to life as a tortured soul, full of contradiction and bombast. He would have been a psychiatrist’s dream.
Much of that works very well indeed, although at times I felt the anger came across as somewhat forced, notwithstanding his character’s short fuse.
The primarily classical music bed that underpins the work, with a smidge of jazz, is delightful.
The minimalist set does the offering justice.
I refer to a couple of chairs, an easel, painting paraphernalia, a small desk upon which sits a bottle of booze and two glasses, a coat stand and a record player.
Quite frankly, I was sitting on the edge of my seat for much of Red. Smith and Hart brought Rothko and Ken to life for me.
I long to see what they tackle next. Red is playing at The MC Showroom until 1st December, 2023.
Review by Alex First Photography by Ritchie Hart