“What do you see?” [by James Wenley]
I’ve started with a quote. “What do you see?”
It’s the first line of RED by John Logan (he of Gladiator and The Aviator fame) , presented by the prestigious Auckland Theatre Company, starring theatre luminary Michael Hurst and directed by Mr. Oliver Driver. Sterling credentials all.
“What do you see?” says Hurst as Mark Rothko, to prospective assistant Ken (Elliot Christiensen-Yule), about one of his paintings. Ah, Art and the subjective position. While one person might see meaning and a parade of emotion, another might see just see the colour red. The Rothko works at the centre of this play are red – big canvases of colour with subtle shading. In a dazzling theatrical set piece, Yule and Hurst madly paint a canvas in front of our eyes with big brush strokes.
What do I see when I look at this production? There is Red, but also a great deal more.
Rothko was an American painter who emerged as part of the Abstract Expressionism movement in the mid 20th Century. His style changed over his career, but he is best known for his ‘mature style’ – (to quote Linda Tyler’s excellent essay in the program) “abstractions with floating blocks of pure colour which lifted viewers away from the sights and sounds of modern life into a meditative space”. Rothko died a suitably tragic artists death (which is brilliantly foreshadowed within the play) of “slashing the veins inside the crooks of his own arms”.
The plot of RED concerns a series of work, the ‘Seagram Murals’, commissioned by the Four Seasons restaurant in New York to decorate the interior. Rothko employs an assistant to carry out his every whim and over two years assist him with their creation.
The Maidment Theatre has been transformed into Rothko’s working studio. Looming canvases (Rothko replicas by Paul Pachter) border the room, splashed paint cans, reminding of the work and sweat that goes into the creation of the work, litter the stage. John Parker’s set surrounds us, and we are situated as a work of art that the characters gaze on. With Brad Gledhill’s gleam of dim light, it looks strikingly beautiful.
There is a real play between the transcendent and the ordinary in the design work. During scene changes a finished canvas slowly rises, seeming to float up the wall, Gledhill’s careful lighting making the painting seem breathtaking, and a classical track chosen by sound designer Claire Cowan heightening the moment further. At another moment, harsh light is thrown on the stage and the house lights are lifted. The set and paintings look ordinary, lifeless, and we are reminded we are in a theatre, watching an imitation of life. Art depends entirely on how you look at it.
The Maidment theatre’s transformation is nothing in comparison to Michael Hurst’s stunning transformation. Hurst has always been the transformative actor and a transfixing presence onstage, hurling himself into roles, never willing to reuse the same old bag of tricks. Superficially, Hurst proudly sports a bald patch on the top of his head for the role; people who have more time than myself could surely make an interesting study into Hurst’s acting career based soley on the length and quality of his hair, from the golden mullet of his Hercules heyday to his slicked black dye job in his most recent spin as the Em Cee in Cabaret. It’s true, Hurst looks startlingly like the enigmatic photographs of Mark Rothko. But the transformation goes far beyond mimicry, Hurst creating life onstage as the complex Rothko, delivering his rants and insights on life and art with relish. He inhabits the role before the play proper begins, strolling onto the stage as audience are still taking the seats, and staring long and hard at the giant artwork on the wall. He takes a seat, and like the audience, waits. I watch him. He’s an actor still at the top of his game, and the John Logan’s Rothko is quite the showcase for his talent.
Elliot Christensen-Yule, a relatively new face (ex-Shortland Street, and he made an impression as Posner in The History Boys), plays Rothko’s assistant Ken. While Rothko is wonderfully vivid, Ken in contrast is decidedly underwritten, and we get little sense of his exterior world (as Ken points out, Rothko never inquired). He’s something of a blank canvas, and while a tragic backstory is painted on later in the play, the character rarely feels little more than a narrative foil to ask questions and to get Rothko talking. It’s only towards the end of the play that the character finally comes alive, and Yule is superb when standing up to Rothko.
In some ways this is an Art History debate disguised as a play. The initial scenes play as a platform for Rothko’s wit and ideas, as he lectures to his new assistant. Many heady concepts are explored – the death of cubism by Rothko and his contemporaries, the Renaissance revolution of linear perspective, Nietzsche and the dichotomy of Apollo Intellect and Dionysus emotion. It’s Art History 101, and I felt smarter for the experience. Director Driver helps keeps the insights moving and flowing, and to its great credit, it’s never ever boring. It’s not till later when the lecture is done that it starts to get really interesting, Ken confident enough now to challenge his master; the play becomes not just a conflict of ideas about what art should be, and who it should be for, but a thrilling conflict between two men. Both actors are at their best in the fiery, passionate outbursts.
Andy Warhol, derided in the play for producing only disposable zeitgeist art (and who’s work would overtake Rothko’s), famously once said “Art is what you can get away with”. Yes, Red the play is Art. John Logan, clever as he is, gets away with a relatively undercooked dramatic experience because the ideas in play are just so damn interesting.
There’s much left to ponder about the mysteries of human expression – art and theatre included – especially for this reviewer. In my note pad are two further quotes from my play that I’ve underlined – “Everybody likes everything nowadays” and “What has significance?”. It’s true; I liked this play, but is that enough? Rothko rails against the ‘tyranny of fine’, in which everything is seen as ‘fine’ and there is no really grappling with what things actually are and our experience of them. How can I possibly put fully into my words the experience of the evening? Can we ever transcend the everyday? And why should we?
So what did I ultimately see? RED. You should too.
RED plays at the Maidment Theatre until 25th June. More information at the Auckland Theatre Company website.