Review – Red, Donmar Theatre

Tuesday 8 December 2009

“Can you tell what it is yet?”

That iconic phrase always flashes through Phil’s mind when he stares at a painting by Mark Rothko. But never more so than last night as the Whingers watched Rothko and his studio assistant Ken attack a blank canvas with a pot of red paint. It’s a bit of a coup de théâtre, brilliantly choreographed as you would expect from director Michael Grandage – but the Whingers couldn’t help thinking of Rolf Harris.

Ah, Rolf Harris! When will someone write a play about him? Abstract expressionism is all very well but at last night’s trip to the Donmar to see Red the Whingers were left longing for a play about an artist they actually cared about.

The problem with Rothko, you see, is that he clearly wasn’t very nice if playwright John Logan is to be believed. And that’s putting it mildly: he is an opinionated, condescending, self-centred, dogmatic, controlling, pretentious and breathtakingly arrogant prima donna. And those are his more appealing qualities. Phil quietly wondered if Andrew felt he were looking in a mirror at times.  In short, Rothko – as painted by Logan and convincingly portrayed by Alfred Molina – is a deeply unsympathetic character.

“The action takes place”, so the cast list (programmes weren’t ready at Monday’s preview performance) misleadingly tells us – if there was any action, we missed it – in Rothko’s New York Bowery studio (effectively realised by Christopher Oram) in the late 50’s with the artist taking on a new assistant, Ken (Eddie Redmayne) to tend to the megalomaniac painter’s every whim. But apart from the previously mentioned painting and the impressive but overdone giant canvas wrangling there is precious little going on.

What there is, though, is an awful, awful lot of talk. And much of it rather pretentious talk about art. Goodness, how Rothko goes on and on. There’s only so much “titanic self-absorption” one can take. Rothko is proud of himself for stamping on Cubism but frets about Pop Art coming up on the inside lane. You may wonder if you’ve stumbled into an art lecture by accident. And not a very stimulating one either: Andrew was praying for Sister Wendy to make an appearance and take it all up a notch.  Rothko’s life ended in suicide but Phil hoped Logan might rewrite art history and get his assistant to finish off Rothko and put us all out of our misery.

One of the big problems is that Rothko is deeply unpleasant and Ken does not get to say anything much for more than an hour so we don’t know whether we like him or not, or what’s at stake for him or why he wears a pristine white t-shirt to work when his job involves mixing up vats of red paint.

There is zero drama until the worm finally turns and Redmayne gets his big scene. Anyway, turns out that Ken talks much like Rothko – Dionysus pulsating fulcrum perpetual dissonance and so on. It’s all ideas and symbols with no heart. There is also a very long list of things that are red (admittedly including red wine) which went on so long that Andrew wished he had bought something more interesting to read – a Pantone chart would have done.

Despite running only 100 minutes without a  break (yes, it’s only as long as Mike Bartlett’s Cock but seems much, much longer) Phil was checking his watch. The man next to Phil was checking his watch too and by that we’re not talking about Andrew. If Andrew wasn’t too grand to carry his own timepiece he would have been doing the same. Instead Andrew, who was clearly planning his own untimely exit, grabbed Phil’s wrist to check if time was actually passing.

But there is plenty to admire in the staging (although the canvases seen on stage aren’t terribly convincing Rothkos though this is neatly covered in the text as they’re supposedly unfinished. It’s probably easier to portray Rothko on stage than a Rothko). It was nice to see a gramophone with LPs.

Neil Austin‘s lighting is particularly effective and Phil thought the music and sound (Adam Cork) occasionally thrilling. There’s nothing at all wrong with the performances and Grandage does manage to build an uneasy tension between the egomaniac and his put-upon assistant. Some of the dialogue is brilliantly written but it’s not till the last 20 minutes when the play suddenly springs to life. Rothko, who has been commissioned to paint murals for The Four Seasons Restaurant in the Seagram Building and wants to create “something that will ruin the appetite of every son-of-a-bitch who ever eats in that room” realises he’s in danger of becoming an interior decorator, visits the extremely expensive dining room and delivers a brilliant diatribe against the place, its staff and customers which would make even A. A. Gill wince.

Plays and musicals about artists have often made entertaining evenings in the theatre but for every Pitman Painters, Hysteria (Dali), Sunday in the Park with George (Seurat) or Stanley (Spencer) there’s a Girl with a Pearl Earring (Vermeer), Giant (Leonardo da Vinci and Michaelangelo), Leonardo the Musical : A Portrait of Love (da Vinci again) or a Lautrec (Toulouse). Despite the longueurs Red probably falls closer to the successes and the Whingers predict raves from the critics.

Yes, there’s a very promising evening in the theatre there somewhere. The problem is the Whingers can’t tell what it is yet.


  1. The Whingers were somewhat perplexed by the “hair and wigs” credit for Richard Mawbey (who else?) because Molina’s head is shaved and Redmayne’s hair seemed no redder or bigger than usual. Perhaps the wig was for Michael Grandage.
  2. Grandage was in evidence at the Donmar last night and Phil at last had a chance to check out whether a case of mistaken identity was indeed justified. Spookily it seems that it was. If they weren’t exactly separated at birth Phil wondered if perhaps Lord Grandage of Donmar may indeed be the love child of his good self and Lady Skipper. (With apologies to those of you who don’t know Lady Skipper – it’s an in joke – please forgive.)
  3. During the duller moments Phil tried to work out who Molina’s Rothko reminded him of, a shaven Alistair Darling (that’s him far right) or The Hood from Thunderbirds.

4 Responses to “Review – Red, Donmar Theatre”

  1. We are new to the Whingers site, but have enjoyed reading the comments on all the plays,
    We go to the “real” theatre when we can but being country cousins and being of more than a certain age and with a dog we appear to be restricted. Anyway, passing the Donmar on Thursday and a matinee we took two standing tickets for Red.
    As a result we “both” need to revisit Rothko`s work, only after recently seeing some work at the Tate when we left quite quickly.

    We left the Donmar and went straight to the National Gallery and saw again Rembrandt`s Belshazzar`s feast, perhaps the Hebrew language left something to be desired, we do not know, not knowing Yiddish.
    The words of the play touched on many chords, such as Caravaggio requesting God as to what the “f” he should do in Rome, the staircase in Florence by Michelangelo and the description of Red of the blood of the murderd parents.
    Only afterwards did we comment on the stage, on this we did agreed, perfect for the play.
    As this is our first comments, please keep up the good work, because although we may disagree with your comments, and between ourselves there are always kernels of truth
    we recognise.
    The programmes were still not available on Thursday,so we need the script to read to see if the words still measure up to the feeling felt at the Matinee on Thursday but a grand time was had by both of us.

  2. As the Whingers are always complimentary about my work and just about the only media types that ever seem to notice a good wig, I thoght it would be correct to tell them why I get a credit in the Red programme. I work consistently with the wonderful Michael Grandage and his designer Christopher Oram, therefore our pre production idea was to have Alfred Molina look as much like Rothko as possible. So we persuaded him to shave his head and I made a wig which echoed Rothko’s dome of baldness with a full head of unruly hair at the back. It was only when we got onstage that all of us realised the impractical nature of this as he was constantly covered with red paint and had no time to leave the stage, clean up and apply a fresh make-up and wig! So for the first time, for all the right reasons, the Donmar refused one of my wigs!! Don’t worry Whingers, I’ll be back there next year and am currently working hard to make the inmates of the Savoy as Legally Blonde as possible!

  3. pb Says:

    I feel much the same way as the Whingers about this… I thought the last half hour was quite fun with its power struggles and so on, but it took so long to get there. And all the stuff about Nietzsche was pretty dull, even though I studied him (and read the Birth of Tragedy). I also had the problem that I had enjoyed seeing Mike Bartlett’s Cock the week before, and by god, Red did seem about three times as long…

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