A leader of one art revolution ponders both the plutocrats who would co-opt him and the younger painters who’d overthrow him in Red, John Logan’s Tony-winning 2009 play about Mark Rothko. Filming a 2018 revival of director Michael Grandage’s original production, Nick Morris gets close enough to Alfred Molina’s powerhouse lead performance that even those who saw the show live may want to revisit it. For geographically or economically challenged art lovers who weren’t able to see the play in person, a nationwide booking in cinemas is very welcome.
Mounted at Wyndham’s Theater in London, this staging replaces Molina’s original co-star Eddie Redmayne (who won a Tony for his performance) with the Harry Potter series’ Alfred Enoch. The young actor plays Ken, who is never introduced by name: The painter’s newly hired assistant, he simply walks into Rothko’s studio in the first scene and becomes his conversational foil, albeit one who is vastly outmatched. Rothko is larger in every sense — from physique to reputation to the size of his rhetorical arsenal — and Enoch makes the young man awestruck, wide-eyed and open-mouthed. This works well at first, giving the play’s subject every opportunity to air his opinions and philosophy; but in the final act, when Ken offers a piercing critique of the spiel he’s been hearing, nothing in Enoch’s performance has prepared us for the reversal. (Nor has Morris’ film done much to signal that two years have passed in this studio, the play’s sole setting.)
A boon for those who couldn’t see it live.
But that late-coming challenge is a necessary retort to the engrossing conversation that precedes it, in which Rothko, like a brilliant but set-in-his-ways college professor, makes his lofty ideals clear. Ken hasn’t even made his first coffee run before Rothko teaches him how to look at one of his huge color-field paintings: Get very close, so that it fills your whole field of vision, and “Let the picture do its work… but work with it.”
“They live and die in the eye of the sensitive viewer,” Rothko explains, prompting an overeager bit of chin-scratching from Ken: Maybe, he wonders, abstract works like these are fundamentally different from their representational predecessors. The Mona Lisa wears the same smile when the Louvre is empty at midnight; but do Rothko’s blocks of color cease to pulsate without human eyes adjusting to their effects?
In several references to that pulsating effect, and to the way different kinds of light dramatically change our experience of the paintings, Logan’s script ingratiates itself with viewers who have stood for long stretches in places like the Rothko Chapel in Houston, watching as fluctuations in natural light reveal the shades of muddy purple in canvasses that first appeared to be solid black.
But the dozens of red-dominated paintings Rothko is making here, in 1958, are intended for an altogether different kind of place (albeit one also designed by the Chapel’s architect, Philip Johnson): The painter has been commissioned to make art for a luxurious new restaurant, The Four Seasons, and he speaks at the start as if this were an honor akin to Michelangelo’s gig at the Sistine Chapel. He envisions a pristine environment that he can completely dominate, controlling how visitors experience work he has poured himself into. You’d think diners were going to chew their steaks in silence, gazing upward reverently, instead of making business deals and trying to impress dates while some fantastically expensive paintings sulk in the background.
The aesthetic and moral conflicts surrounding the Four Seasons job will trigger much of Red‘s eventual conflict, but the play’s first half is no less engrossing for the lower stakes of its dialogue. Molina is captivating as Rothko pontificates, questions and explains, covering everything from Rembrandt and Nietzsche to Jackson Pollock and the convertible car that (as Rothko sees it) represented his descent into the tainted world of celebrity.
As they talk, the two men occasionally move giant canvases into and out of the set’s central work area. When empty, this stretch of white wall looks like a slaughterhouse, its hooks and ropes dangling into an outline of bloodlike spatters of paint. The painter himself sees red as representative of life, only fearing the inevitable day when “the black will swallow the red,” but Christopher Oram’s stage design foreshadows death well before the dialogue digs into the subject. Rothko offhandedly refers to Pollock’s suicide, and he clearly thinks Ken’s naive when he objects that the painter’s drunk-driving car wreck was not intentional.
“When I commit suicide, there won’t be any doubt about it,” Rothko says. The painter appears not to notice he has said “when” instead of “if,” but Ken does, and so do we. Rothko won’t actually kill himself for another decade after the play’s final scene. But as John Logan seems to see it, his self-destruction began with the lies he told himself about paintings made for a temple devoted to wealth and decadence, not art.
Distributor: Trafalgar Releasing
Production company: Michael Grandage Co.
Cast: Alfred Molina, Alfred Enoch
Director: Nick Morris
Screenwriter: John Logan
Producer: Austin Shaw
Executive producer: David Horn
Production designer-costume designer: Christopher Oram
Composer: Adam Cork
Casting director: Anne McNulty