With screenplay credits for Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator, and the Sam Mendes James Bond corker Skyfall, John Logan knows a thing or two about working on a large canvas. Such chops surely came in handy as he composed his hit play Red, although the large canvases that occupy center stage are of the more literal variety. The place: the New York studio of the expressionist painter Mark Rothko, Napoleon of the color field. The time: late in his career, when he was torturing himself with the so-called Seagram Murals, a series of characteristically uncompromising abstractions for that pompous power space, the dining room at the Four Seasons (now shuttered).
As The New Yorker’s Peter de Vries observed in 1977, seven years after Rothko’s death, “The murals in restaurants are on a par with the food in museums.” Decades of improvement in the latter notwithstanding, the zinger still stings. Rothko, no pussycat at the best of times, knew he was selling his soul. As resurrected in the play, we find him in an especially caustic mood, forever hectoring his studio assistant Ken, who over time makes a bigger dent in Rothko’s bullying ego than the great man wants to acknowledge.
Together, master and minion—the play’s entire cast—are the stuff of standing ovations (wait until you see these guys prime a canvas together). Red was first produced in 2009, by Donmar Warehouse in London, and then transferred to Broadway. The hulking Alfred Molina, who gave Rothko a clean-shaven scalp and eyebrows to out-Groucho Groucho, was duly nominated for the 2010 Tony Award for Best Actor in a Play but lost to Denzel Washington in Fences. In the Featured Actor category, the fleet, feral Eddie Redmayne (Redmayne!) took home the statuette for the team.
This live video of Red derives from the 2019 London revival. Molina once again pulls out all the stops as Rothko. He’s seconded this time by Alfred Enoch, an elegant, well-spoken Brazilian-British actor best known as Dean Thomas in the Harry Potter movies, and let’s just say Eddie’s shoes fit him perfect.
Red is available for streaming on the Broadway HD Web site
Matthew Gurewitsch writes about opera and classical music for AIR MAIL. He lives in Hawaii