Walking into the Wyndham, the stage takes you by surprise. Alfred Molina sits unmoving, back to the audience, staring fixedly at one of the many deep crimson paintings that loom over the stage. Instantly, we find ourselves in Mark Rothko’s studio circa late 1950s.
There is little plot to Red; the short play’s events circle around Rothko’s commission for a Four Seasons restaurant in New York and his resentment for the new pop-artists nipping at his heels, but it is his diatribes at young assistant Ken that overshadow all else. At first, Rothko appears god-like in his commands, teaching Ken and the audience how to view his paintings; and yet as the years go by and Ken becomes disenchanted with Rothko, we see a certain vulnerability and the cracks begin to show in his character.
Molina dominates the stage and entrances with his lectures and theories on colour and art. He is utterly convincing in his indifference to Ken, completely selfish and absorbed in his art with an intensity that is felt from the moment that you walk into the theatre. He portrays the perfect contrast; his bullying of Ken a striking polarity to his almost fatherly protection of the inanimate. Rothko’s spiralling is beautifully played out, and Molina exudes his internal conflict perfectly whilst avoiding the cliché of the tortured artist.
On the other hand, for the most part I found Alfred Enoch unconvincing as Ken. Rothko’s assistant is there to mix paint and fetch coffee, but ultimately to act as an audience and foil for Rothko’s philosophical rants. Enoch’s acting for most of the play feels forced and uncertain, his timing slightly off. That said, he grows as Ken does, particularly during his character’s retaliation to Rothko’s apathy and hypocrisy. His real shining moment is talking about his parent’s murder. This contrived plot point, echoed by the intense on-stage painting that leaves both actors and stage looking as though they are splattered in blood, hit home purely through Enoch’s performance. Staring at the spraying of paint, tears glistening in his eyes, Enoch takes a hollow plot point and gives it life.
This spectacular set which both looks and acts as a real studio, is filled with vibrant paintings which pulse and suffocate the work space. I am somewhat doubtful that Rothko would have held such eloquently enlightened and lively discussions in his real studio, however the dialogue and performance here is excellent. Whilst the play itself feels somewhat empty, the staging and performance of Red fill it and make it well worth a watch, particularly for art-lovers.
Red is at Wyndham’s Theatre until July 28th 2018
By Emma Quick