Digital Theatre review: Red (2018)
Ivan Radford | On 16, Jul 2020
“I’m not your teacher or therapist,” declares Mark Rothko (Alfred Molina) at the start of Red, a play about the legendary painter and the young generation of talent nipping at his heels. By the end of the 90-minute two-handed, he’s become both, and that inevitability of connection drives the play’s glowing, glowering intensity.
Written by John Logan – best known for his film and TV work, such as Gladiator, Penny Dreadful, The Aviator and Skyfall, but no slouch in the theatre world – the play first debuted back in 2009, when it went on to win several Tony Awards. In 2018, the play was revived by director Michael Grandage, and this recording loses none of its potent intimacy.
That’s primarily thanks to the cast, with Alfred Molina a towering presence as Rothko, a role that he reprises from the show’s original run. Those added 10 years only reinforces the weary authority that he carries even when grubby and covered in paint, a shaven-headed authority laced with arrogance but also fuelled by a passion and determination to create – and, crucially, complete – his work.
Alfred Enoch (Harry Potter’s Dean Thomas, How to Get Away with Murder’s Wes), who plays the enthusiastic assistant Ken, is a thrilling counterpart to Molina’s dominating physicality, and his wiry eagerness gradually evolves into something more static and forceful in its own right. Ken mixes the paints and prepares the frames, but moves from helpful handyman to interrogator, as he questions why Rothko would sell out to work on four murals for a posh restaurant. Surely, he reasons, that’s no different to the pop art movement that Rothko looks down on?
The notion of subjectivity is there from the opening lines of dialogue, as Logan explores the fundamentally personal act of interpreting art – even an angry painting intended as some kind of rebuttal to its privileged onlookers can be seen by others as something commercialised and harmless. That battle between perspectives, between age and youth, greed and perfectionism are the driving force between our duo’s fascinating, shifting dynamic.
On that pupil-mentor level alone, Red is an interesting watch, but it’s the play’s ability to balance interpersonal relationships with the dry subject of art itself that colours it a success. “The only thing I fear in life,” Rothko admits at one point, “is that one day the black will swallow the red.” The play takes that statement as seriously as anything else uttered in this hour-and-a-half, and delves into the concept of black and red being opposites, not in terms of paint but in terms of human existence; this is a sincere meditation on the juxtaposing forces of darkness and life, of passion and the absence of it, of trauma and expressing it.
Played out against the rhythms and rituals of assembling these four gargantuan, bleeding panels, the result is a study of how humans connect – and must connect – with life and with each other. Art provides the thing that goes between the two, a medium that inspires learning and therapy as much as colour and beauty. A thoughtful, finely composed piece.
Red is available to buy for £9.99 and rent for £4.99 on Showcase at Home. For more on the streaming service, click here.