In Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's majestic, Pulitzer-Prize winning musical Sunday in the Park with George, a person says of French impressionist painter Georges Seurat: "White. A blank page or canvas. His favourite. So many possibilities." (These may just be my favourite lines from any musical). Another song also contains this provocation to any artist: "Anything you do, let it come from you. Then it will be new. Give us more to see."
London's last revival of Sunday in the Park with George transferred from the Menier Chocolate Factory to Wyndham's (and then Broadway); now on the same Wyndham's stage, John Logan's 2009 play Red about the great American abstract artist Mark Rothko, who painted in in blocks of colour, has also been superbly revived.
And it reminded me keenly of both of those Sondheim/Lapine lines. Here, too, we observe an artist faced with a blank canvas that has to be primed first. And its very opening line has Rothko enquiring of his new assistant, "What do you see?" He is striving for a new way of communicating in paint, and as with Seurat, both the form and content of his work feel wrenched from his soul.
Michael Grandage, who who also directed the play's original premiere at the Donmar Warehouse in 2009 where he was then artistic director, has now brought the play back to London nine years later to finally give it the West End run it missed then, when it instead transferred directly to Broadway (and won multiple Tony's, including Best Play, as well as for Grandage as Best Director of a Play and for Christopher Oram's design, Neil Austin's lighting and Adam Cork's sound). All of those creatives reprise their subtle duties here, as does Alfred Molina in the imposing central role of Rothko; only Tony winning featured actor Eddie Redmayne as his assistant has not returned.
Redmayne's shoes are instead thrillingly filled by a dynamic young actor Alfred Enoch, a veteran of seven of the eight Harry Potter films, whose initial tentativeness around the bullying Rothko eventually sees him finding his own voice to challenge him.
John Logan's play is a tense and occasionally ferocious exploration of the price of making art, in every sense, and the inevitable compromises that follow as Rothko seeks to fulfil a commercial commission to provide multiple canvases for the Four Seasons restaurant in the then-new Seagram building in early 1950s midtown New York.
With only two characters onstage, it sometimes threaten to be talkative; but thanks to a supremely artful production, Rothko's art also comes to life as another character that transcends mere language. The art itself becomes living proof of what the play is all about.
Red Tickets are available now.
What the popular press said...
"Even if I couldn’t always believe that the studio would have housed such suavely phrased arguments, the play offers an invigorating 90 minutes and shows Rothko’s ability to paint the town his own sombre form of red."
Michael Billington, the Guardian, (four stars)
"It’s an exhilarating showdown: Alfred Molina’s stout, bald, bespectacled and pugilistic Rothko watches in stern, momentarily silenced appraisal, as his lithe young protégé-cum-skivvy – asked to think for himself, but not too much – rips chunks out of his arrogant master, like a young lion challenging the head of the pride."
Dominic Cavendish, the Telegraph (four stars)
"There are certainly moments when John Logan’s portrait of Mark Rothko feels like a sermon or a lecture. But it captures the grandeur of this famously imperious painter’s vision."
Henry Hitchings, Evening Standard (four stars)