Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Red, and Rothko

I went to see the pensioner, John Bach, in John Logan's play Red last night, at the Fortune Theatre.  I mention Bach's age only because I see that he's just one year younger than me.  The physical and mental challenge of his role in Red would be a challenge to any actor, let alone someone who's verging on 66.

Red would have to be one of the best plays I've seen at the Dunedin's Fortune Theatre, not just because the play itself is great, but because of the energy and focus and interplay between the two actors who inhabit the stage for the entire ninety minutes duration.  Neither of them gets more than a minute's break.  The other actor, the much younger Cameron Douglas, is more than a match for Bach's many years of experience in the theatre, movies and television.  He has the advantage, perhaps, of playing someone close to his own age, so can identify with the young man's thinking and behaviour.  Nevertheless, the role requires considerable work, and never lets him off lightly.

Red explores everything that can occur between two artists of different ages: experience, philosophy, the old giving way to the new, the thought of death when life seems abundant, the contemplative versus the active, the selling-out of the soul; whether art is for all time or merely to be hung on the walls of an expensive restaurant - and ignored.  And why we should produce art at all...

There are wonderful moments of confrontation, with either one or other of the actors going full blast at his counterpart.  There are some wonderful moments when a mere look changes how you feel about one of the actors.  There are sudden moments of humour.  And there are sections of deep emotion, especially when the young man, known only as Ken (and never actually called by name during the play, as far as I can recall) gradually reveals the horror of the day he woke up to find his parents had been murdered in their beds.

Rothko, by contrast, barely mentions his past: he throws off a horror moment in his own life as something he's not sure whether he actually remembers or has just been told about.  His Jewish name has been discarded long before.  We know nothing about his private life outside the studio, so it's ironic that Ken angrily tells him at one point that Rothko knows nothing about his life outside the studio, and isn't interested in finding out.  The two men exist inside the room.  We know of only two other characters: both of them are spoken to on the telephone (which never rings), and the first of these, the one Ken is conversing with briefly in one scene, is anonymous.

And the room is wonderful: it threatens to spill out into the audience; it's untidy, yet it's always being tidied; its walls are covered with paintings from the series of murals Rothko is painting (or canvases in various states of preparation) - and there's another one we never see that's hanging on the 'fourth wall'.  The sink down in one corner is the sort of sink you see in a mechanic's workshop: except that this one is covered in paint that will no longer wash off.  In that curious and slightly unusable space that the Fortune is 'blessed' with (to the audience's left) there are shelves stuffed with items that are ignored, forgotten.  There are high windows way above the reach of the actors through which light barely penetrates (Rothko doesn't like natural light); there is pale ceiling lighting in the room, and there are lamps that shine throughout one or two scenes on the enormous prepared canvas at the back of the stage, a canvas that the actors actually prepare in tandem at one point, working under and over and in front and behind each other in a passionate and energetic sloshing on of yet more red paint.  No doubt Peter King, the set designer, had ideas from other productions of the play to work from, but he's converted the Fortune stage into something that no longer seems a stage, and done it marvellously.  

The play is based on events in Rothko's life though the character of Ken is fictional.  

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