Red

John Logan

Donmar Warehouse

(2009)

Review by Philip Fisher

Art is back on the theatrical agenda, as this play joins Timberlake Wertenbaker's portrait of Edgar Degas and Suzanne Valadon, The Line which is currently playing at the Arcola.

On one level, Red seems to be nothing more than two blokes talking about painting. However, this retrospective of Mark Rothko's work and artistic sensibilities is far more than that and rarely fails to entertain and inform.

One wonders whether Michael Grandage cast the pairing deliberately, as Alfred Molina playing the artist is joined by Eddie Redmayne in the role of enslaved disciple.

Molina brings the abstract expressionist to life in a performance that seems totally convincing. Rothko has the kind of temperament that is not very politely known as artistic and a driven need to take himself and his work terribly seriously.

The work is something else, as life-affirming, bloody reds compete with deathly blacks on every canvas during the 100 minutes of essentially one-sided debate.

Rothko's world view brims with self-confidence, as he repeats mantras that link himself with Rembrandt and Turner or delights in seeing off the Cubists.

However, this is more than merely another painter with attitude. As portrayed here, Rothko is a polymath who plays classical music and pontificates to the unnamed young artist. The younger man abases himself before genius, presumably to pay for his own materials or perhaps in the hope of soaking up genius by osmosis.

Eddie Redmayne does eventually get one tirade in which to put forward the pleasures to be derived from a youthful Pop Art movement that by this time, 1958/9 was threatening to do to Rothko and Pollock what they had done to Picasso and Matisse.

The value of Red is in the ideas that are propounded and debated. Most visitors will learn a lot about the history of art and its relationship to money before they leave the theatre but also philosophy and life.

This may all sound rather dry and there is not much action but, thanks in large part to Alfred Molina but also John Logan's script, is often mentally invigorating.

There is also one classic Grandage set-piece as the pair prime a (red of course) canvas to the operatic accompaniment of Gluck and, unbelievably, this most tedious of acts is absolutely thrilling. By the end of it the duo look like returning, blood-spattered war heroes.

If you think that Rothko is dreadfully overrated or find intellectual debate tedious, give Covent Garden a wide berth for the moment. Otherwise, book now for one of the most original plays in London.