A man sits in a sturdy, slatted wooden chair with his back to the audience as they file in and find their seats. Throughout the pre-show chatter he remains there, focus consumed by a huge canvas painted in infinite shades of the colour red. A puff of cigarette smoke lingers above his head but he is otherwise so still he is barely noticeable. And yet, his stillness is captivating. He is Mark Rothko.
Alfred Molina reprises this role for the second time since the 2009 Donmar Warehouse premiere of John Logan’s Red. Michael Grandage’s production later transferred to Broadway, where Molina earned a Tony Award nomination for Best Lead Actor in a Play. He is now joined by relative newcomer Alfred Enoch – known for his portrayal of Dean Thomas in seven of the eight Harry Potter movies, or more recently as Wes Gibbins in Shonda Rhimes’ American drama How to Get Away With Murder. Enoch is Ken, Rothko’s overeager undergraduate assistant trying to carve out his own career as a painter.
In a single 90-minute act, Red explores the relationship between these two men, diametrically opposed in character: one is traditional classical music, the other is beat generation jazz; one is worldly and cynical, the other wide-eyed and curious. There is a comparison between Apollo and Dionysus that isn’t directly related to them, but it feels like an appropriate description of their dynamic: logic and purity versus emotion and instincts. Molina’s stature is commanding as the pulsating rhythm of his sermons flow into one another. It is an epic performance that carries with it a fleeting worry that his dominance will crush Enoch. It doesn’t – he comes into existence in the latter part of the play.
The design team bring truth and tension to the production. Christopher Oram’s set is every bit the archetypal artist’s studio from late-50s NYC, while Adam Cork’s sound grounds the action. But it is Neil Austin’s lighting that does the most here. He crafts great, deep pools of smooth red velvet in which you lose yourself. It’s awesome.
Logan’s writing might to some feel a bit inaccessible. It is fast-paced and full of great monologues that are heavy on philosophy and opinions about art history. The antidote to this is Grandage’s direction; what you might miss in dialogue is more than made up for in the aesthetic. The liberal use of the unbroken fourth wall is an excellent choice. It draws the audience in and puts the emotion right in their laps. And there is a spectacularly choreographed dance scene, in which Molina’s Rothko and Enoch’s Ken prime a canvas together, that takes you by surprise. They’re diametrically opposed but perfectly in sync.
Red is at Wyndham’s Theatre until July 28th. For more details, click here.