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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Donmar Warehouse


  Alfred Molina and Eddie Redmayne/ Ph: Johan Persson

Choosing a famous artist as the subject of a play is a bit like star casting. Only instead of watching a Hollywood name tread the boards, the audience gets to see a tormented painter feverishly immersed in the creative process. It can be like watching one of those awful historical TV drama-documentaries that instead of explaining history attempt to recreate it. Oh look, there's Napoleon.
Biographical plays about artists can be equally embarrassing. In one, I remember Michelangelo happily chipping away at his David. Apart from Sondheim’s Seurat musical or Nicholas Wright’s Van Goch play, very few dramatic works can claim to do justice to the art or the artists that inspired them. But to that short list we can now add John Logan’s absorbing new offering about Mark Rothko.
Rothko’s great paintings – great both in size and profundity – were seen earlier this year in a major exhibition in London. In fact, the exhibition focused on the very canvasses Rothko works on in Logan’s two-hander – the Seagram Murals that were commissioned for the Four Seasons Restaurant.
It is 1959 and designer Christopher Oram has turned the Donmar stage into the artist’s paint-splattered New York studio. One of Rothko’s quietly terrifying ochre-red landscapes hangs as glowering backdrop.
And just as convincing as Oram's version of the original is shaven-headed Alfred Molina as the brooding, self-obsessed Rothko.
Molina’s film career (The Da Vinci Code and Spider Man II) lends Michael Grandage’s production a degree of that other kind of star status. And writer John Logan has some hefty screen credits too, including Gladiator.
But it is the relatively unknown Eddie Redmayne, one of Britain’s finest emerging actors, who provides the wattage here. Redmayne plays the painter’s young, new assistant Ken, the fictional foil that punctures the vanity of Molina’s Rothko.
From the moment that Ken is greeted by the artist with a barrage of rules and opinions, the dramatic arc of Logan’s play is quickly established. Rothko warns Ken not to see him as a mentor or as a father, but as an employer. And so on one level the play’s uninterrupted 100 minutes can be described as a wait for the inevitable – when the artist cares about the condition of his assistant almost as much as his artistic reputation. And the same is true of Ken. We wait for the young man’s diffidence to turn into confidence. On both these counts Logan does not disappoint. Though, nor does he surprise.
But the journey the author takes us on is an increasingly absorbing one that, thanks to two superb performances, delivers moments that are dramatically astonishing.
As Redmayne’s Ken asserts himself, the duo gets embroiled in debates.The symbolism of colour, the source of inspiration and the meaning of Rothko’s huge ochre-red canvasses might not appear to be the stuff of great dialogue. But unlike so many past plays about artists, Logan does not rely on passion – also known as shouting – to keep his play afloat. Here the exchanges are thrillingly articulate. Rothko’s use of black as symbol for mortality, for instance, is denounced as cliché be Ken. It is, he wittily argues, a kind of "chromatic anthropomorphism." If you are interested in art, you will be interested in the arguments.
Grandage separates these with scene changes that show the workings of an artists’ studio – how canvases are stretched across a frame and how frames are hoisted into place by a system of ropes and pulleys. In the p


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