Red flows with vigour and energyJennifer de Klerk
Jennifer de Klerk: What is art? It’s a question that has been hotly debated in art circles and newspaper headlines lately.
For leading abstract painter Mark Rothko, it is luminescent blocks of colour that pulsate and move, reverberating against each other, a deeper level of reality, a vision of truth. He is reluctant to let them go – where can he find a real human being to appreciate them; they will be hurt …
“They are paintings!” says his young assistant Ken, finally driven to exasperation after two years of a relentless flood of words and opinions from his irascible employer.
A genius, toweringly self-absorbed and self-opinionated … “Rembrandt and Rothko,” he ponders. “No, Rothko and Rembrandt … Rothko, Rembrandt and Turner …”
Encased in his sealed submarine of a studio, splashed with red, lit by artificial light, he stares at his work – 36 murals destined for an upmarket restaurant. Finally he seizes a brush … “You’re going to paint!” says Ken, incredulously.
Red, splashes of red, but now veering to brown, into ochre, heading to black. Red for sunsets, the colour of blood – crimson, scarlet, carmine – black for death … “There is only one thing I fear in life … one day the black will swallow the red.” Ultimately Rothko committed suicide.
This is not an easy play to access. It is a tsunami of ideas and comments, tantrums and emotional highs. Preferably you need to know something about art history - cubism from pop art, Picasso from Pollock, Turner from Matisse. The names and terms are tossed around with gay abandon.
But it is worth the exercise … this is a powerful, intellectually challenging play, impeccably acted. Michael Richard, as you would expect, dominates the stage with a finely judged characterisation, but young Jeremy Richard, as Ken, holds his own against the onslaught.
We see him grow and develop, form his own opinions and ultimately explode into a furious diatribe of home truths that stops Rothko in his tracks. “I’m fired,” he says miserably. “No,” says Rothko, “for the first time you exist.”
Red splashes the stage, the vivid backdrops, the clothes, the floor. In a frenzied dance they slash it onto one of the massive canvasses, it infuses the action with life.
Not an easy play, but it flows with vigour and energy; a memorable experience.
Red, presented by KickstArt and the National Arts Festival, written by John Logan, directed by Steven Stead, with Michael Richard and Jeremy Richard is at the Old Mutual Theatre on the Square until August 11.
Jennifer de Klerk is editor of Artslink.co.za
Auto & General Theatre on the Square., West Street Sandown Johannesburg Gauteng South Africa