“What do you see?” Mark Rothko asks his hard-pressed assistant in John Logan’s 2009 play. The audience are routinely set the same challenge – to look into Rothko’s fuzzy rectangular paintings and find something. In Logan’s portrait of the abstract expressionist, the deepest scarlet running into a carmine void becomes the desperate structure of a life in disarray, the order in disorder.
In this rigorous co-production between the Lyric Theatre and Prime Cut Productions, we follow Rothko on his infamous commission for the Seagram Building in late 1950s New York. Intended to simply embellish a Four Seasons restaurant (“The flashiest murals since the Sistine Chapel,” someone cracks), the painter recognises it as a grander project: a chance to transform a soulless place into a temple.
This, director Emma Jordan recognises, is a joyride through an artist’s obsessions. Lessons woven from art history might be pedantic, were it not for Patrick O’Kane’s humorously neurotic Rothko, and Thomas Finnegan’s superb performance as his pressured new aide, Ken.
If for a while there seems to be little drama between these two, it’s because Logan’s script is partly a mystery play, with a surprise supporting cast on canvas. “These pictures deserve compassion,” urges Rothko, gesturing to the recreations in Ciaran Bagnall’s sombre stage design, but for all the painters’ attempts to condense them, these objets d’art, insistently humanised in Jordan’s production, always push back.
In an exhilarating scene showing the two artists paint a canvass to a dizzying aria, for instance, the colour dispatches Ken back to a bloody tragedy from his childhood. As a frantic Rothko, O’Kane nicely halts and sympathises with his assistant’s rootless history. Both art and man, it seems, are here to surpass the past.
Ken, in Finnegan’s thrillingly agile performance, grows in confidence, showing allegiance to the growing Pop art movement and harbouring obvious resentment for Rothko’s esoteric methods. He barks back at the difficult master, claiming he’s become obsolete.
The tragedy is that O’Kane’s passionate painter shares in the revelation. Where Warholian displays of junk culture in the Four Seasons would at least have been in on the joke, Rothko washes over with disappointment, realising that his murals, sentenced to a den of gossipy elites, will make no change at all.
The same cannot be said for the combined resources of the play’s producers. With arts funding in Northern Ireland currently in doubt, Jordan’s production sharpens into another kind critique. Rothko’s parting advice to his younger peer is less nihilistic, more mobilising: “Make them look.”
Red is at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast, until April 22nd. For more details, click here.