Colin Friels in Red | Sumner Theatre (Pic: Jeff Busby)

The artist Mark Rothko was one of the great abstract expressionist painters of the 20th century. With fellow innovators Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, he revolutionised the American art scene and became a lasting influence to a generation of artists.

John Logan’s play Red appropriates the name and works of Rothko to give legitimacy to a laboured diatribe about the purpose of “art”.

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The script comes to the Melbourne Theatre Company after a much-lauded production first at London’s Donmar Warehouse and then on Broadway, where it took home six Tony Awards, including Best Play. Its appeal is clear: it is an easily digestible art history lesson; it offers the chance for an audience to see a star actor in a scenery-chewing role; and it has a direct connection, at least in name, to a significant figure of high art.

Playwright Logan has had recent success as a screenwriter, with credits that include box office heavy-hitters Gladiator, The Aviator and Hugo. There is a lack of subtext in the character of Rothko that echoes Russell Crowe’s Maximus from Gladiator; he speaks only in portentous maxims: “To surmount the past, you must know the past”, “We are in the perpetual process now: creation, maturation, cessation”. Less a character than a series of quotations stripped of their context, Rothko espouses aphorisms on “art” and “life” and “death” to the audience for some 90-odd minutes.

Logan uses the device of a new studio assistant, Ken, to provide Rothko with an audience and counterpoint. Ken is an artist too, of the next generation of pop-artists who infuriate and appal Rothko with their lack of respect for the past, but as a character he turns out to be just as much as a mouthpiece as Rothko. We learn so little about these two individuals and their lives outside the studio, it is hard to care about their fates.

Colin Friels works hard at breathing life into the character of Rothko, finding a sly humour and physical energy within the slabs of monologue. He is less successful with Rothko’s darkness and deep resentment. Instead of appearing as an intimidating figure, Friels’ exhibits more a kind of gruff charm.

Newcomer André de Vanny, as Ken, serves as a likable foil to Friels, especially when he eventually goes head to head with the older man after enduring, with the audience, Rothko’s self-important rants.

At its centre, the play flickers briefly into life with a promising sequence showing the two men at work, preparing a canvas for Rothko to work upon. The audience is given a chance to see the dramatic power of bodies in action before being returned, too soon, to the lecture theatre. If the rest of play lived up to this one scene, it would have created a much more dynamic theatrical experience.

Director Alkinos Tsilimidos, most known for his film work with Friels (Tom White, Blind Company), gives us an unfussy production on a realistic artist studio set by Shaun Gurton. With a lack of dramatic action on stage, the lighting (Matt Scott) and sound (Tristan Meredith) sometimes overcompensate, which only serves to highlight the lack of forward momentum in the play.

Red uses the reflected light of one artist to illuminate itself as a significant piece of art in its own right. Sadly, the text lacks the dramatic tension required in theatre to shed any new light on Rothko, his processes or struggles in the creation of his art.

The central philosophy at the heart of the play — that an artist shouldn’t sell out to satisfy the commercial tastes of a bourgeois audience — is deeply ironic when presented without comment to a Melbourne Theatre Company subscription audience.

It is certainly hard to imagine that Rothko himself would approve.

The details: Red plays the Sumner Theatre until May 5. Tickets on the company website.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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