RED - 2nd preview (Donmar 4/12/09) 5 December 2009

Under normal circumstances I wouldn't have attended a second preview but this was the result of booking as a Donmar Friend for the first time and getting to grips with the booking form. Live and learn. However, it was the second preview and I kept that in mind.

This is the second play in a row that has greeted the audience with a scent (see Cock at the Royal Court for the other). Whether intentional or not, the space smells of artists paint which does set the scene nicely. The Donmar stage has been turned into a painters studio, the walls have been stripped bare with the only built set piece are doors leading out to one side. Hanging on a suspended wall, centre towards the back and dominating the stage is a Rothko painting - see above image for an idea of his work - which they change numeous times throught the production. Here lies problem number one, abstract expressionism can be difficult to get into, understand or appreciate. Either you do or you don't. As with many art forms, having information about them or doing some sofa research could help appreciate it, however if you come to Red with no prior knowledge it could be heavy going. Honestly, I think this is a major problem with this play but more on that after a quick rundown on the story.

It starts in Rothko's studio, 1958, as a young man - Ken (Eddie Redmayne - Now or Later at the Royal Court, films The Other Boleyn Girl and Savage Grace) meets Mark Rothko (Alfred Molina -films Frida, Prick Up Your Ears, Chocolat) for the first time as his assistant. The action takes place over a two year period as Rothko works on a mural for the restaurant in New York's ritzy Seagrams building. Rothko proves to be difficult in his relationship with his assistant as well as being overprotective about his work and how it's presented. That's about all there is to the actual story. The remainder of the play is filled with discussions about how Rothko feels about art, how he challenges his assistant and how he felt about his contemporaries and the art world in general.

I had heard on the by and by that Rothko was known for being very difficult. That's clear after the first scene. Unfortunately 100 minutes of a man being difficult is in fact difficult to listen to. Even more difficult is the language used and subject matter. All very high brow. I could have gone along if there was an ultimate purpose but it just waffled on and on, often repeating the same themes and points. Not much is revealed about either character with the exception of a brief 'tender' moment about two thirds of the way through and the very end which left me wondering even more - what's the point?

Keeping in mind it was an early performance, I couldn't help but wonder if it was in fact a 45 minute play stretched out to make a full evening. Each scene change is marked by two occurances - first, the painting on the suspended wall is changed by Rothko and Ken (this involves loosening ropes, lowering one painting, taking it off of hooks, walking it to the back wall, putting it down, taking a new one, walking it back, putting it on the hooks, putting it on the hooks and fixing the ropes again) and second, one of the two characters exits to change their clothes. There was one exception to this. One of the best visual scenes occurs as the two prime a canvas with red paint. It's a furious and visceral encounter of man, canvas and red paint - all done to an aria - that leaves them both covered in red. At this point Rothko goes offstage to clean up and Ken does his cleaning up onstage. So basically we sat there and watched Ken take off his shirt, wipe himself down, clean up and put on a new shirt. If they took out all the on stage, off stage, change the picture, stretch a canvas and mix some paint actions, it wouldn't have been nearly as long.

Going back to the 'prior knowledge' issue, unfortunately programmes were not available due to an error that was only discovered after they had been printed, but one can assume that there would have be some background information on Rothko, the times and the art world he was a part of. That would be useful to have but my feelings are that you shouldn't need that information to understand or fully engage with the play. There is so much information bandied around that assumes prior knowledge and I'm pretty sure those without it would not get the full effect. It's all about the art. Matisse's work is referred to, Pollock plays a major part (it seems there was some sort of rivalry), Picasso and the cubists and then Warhol and Lichtenstein. If you don't know these artists works then I wonder what the play would say to you I get the impression that there is an attempt to get to the bottom of Rothko's personality and desires but not much is revealed. Maybe it was intentional that what is revealed is almost in an abstract expressionist manner?

My last big gripe with the production is the use of the paintings. I think it would have been much more powerful to not have the paintings on stage, to let our imaginations set free by the characters descriptions. Seeing the paintings makes the production so specific that it's hard to grasp any universal meaning, message or theme. What was also odd was that the mural being painted for the restaurant, the painting that formed the thrust of the story, was never seen. What the audience gets (continuously) are two actors looking at the bottom of the dress circle as if they are looking at the mural.

Again, this was the second preview. The performances were at the place you would expect them to be on a second preview, and one would assume that with their talents they will develop as the run continues. My issue is with the play (by John Logan - known for his screenplays for Sweeney Todd, The Aviator and Gladiator as co-writer. It doesn't say much and the little of what it says is said with self- indulgence. It's the sort of play that many will probably see and come out raving about how fantastic it is - primarily because the language is literary and academic which many equate with being good theatre. It reminds me of those people who think an actors performance is fantastic primarily because they can memorise a five page monologue and rattle it off without error. For me it's not enough.

What I find suprising is that Red is directed by Michael Grandage who is one of the most respected and sucessful directors today. Again, early days, I'm not sure if he will be making any major adjustments, we'll have to wait and see how it develops. I could forgive the play for it's use of over intellectual language and thought but I spent 100 minutes in the company of two people who over think everything only to be told at the end that it's a bad thing. Oh well. Maybe I can get those 100 minutes back somehow.