By John Logan. Ensemble Theatre (NSW). September 12 – October 6, 2012.

“… And the pretension! Jesus Christ, the pretension! I can’t imagine any other painter in the history of art ever tried to be so SIGNIFICANT.’  KEN

Who am I to write about a writer who has such a command of words? Who has won so many awards for this work – Tony, Drama Desk, Outer Circle, Drama League! Who is able say so much, so economically, so deeply, through two characters who have been created so carefully, so deftly!  

When I got home last night I bought an e-copy of the play and read it right through before I even dared to write about it – or the production. There was so much to think about, so many opinions to consider, so much truth. Anyone who paints or draws or writes or directs (and I have to admit I try to do all four) needs to read this play as well as hear and see it!

“We try to capture the ephemeral, the miraculous, on canvas, stopping time, but like an entomologist pinning a butterfly, it dies when we try …” ROTHKO

Logan’s play is not just about art. It’s about the philosophy of art, and life, and change. He tells it through the artist Mark Rothko, a contemporary of Jackson Pollock, who has accepted a commission to paint murals for the restaurant in a New York skyscraper, and his young employee/assistant Ken, an aspiring artist. The play covers two years of their time together. Rothko paints, thinks, and harries Ken with his philosophies about art – and life …

“ ’Pretty.’ ‘Beautiful.’ ‘Nice.” ‘Fine.’ That’s our life now! Everything’s ‘fine’. … Well, let me tell you everything is not fine! … Conflicted. Nuanced. Troubled. Diseased. Doomed. I am not fine. We are not fine. We are anything but fine.”

Colin Moody is Mark Rothko. He fills the stage with brooding intensity. His height and strength is an immediate, powerful presence. This part could almost have been written for him – and he makes it own.  He sits or stands, still, staring through heavy glasses. Or paces with animal precision. The conviction of his delivery captures the intensity of Rothko’s indulgent self belief. He epitomises Ken’s description of him. “You’re nothing but a solipsistic bully. I can’t imagine another painter in the history of art who ever tried so hard to be significant.”

Stephen James King plays Ken. Ken is Rothko’s foil. He is light to Rothko’s dark. Open to Rothko’s closed.  He takes the shit Rothko deals because he wants so much to learn – and eventually throws it back. James plays this role with gentle naivety. He moves quietly, lightly. He watches carefully. And then questions … perceptively. Electricity sparks between them. A sort of magnetic attraction and repulsion.

Both actors obviously relish the roles and the writing and the direction. As director, Mark Kilmurry has taken the audience inside the script. Every nuance, every pause, every beat, every movement is carefully constructed. His admiration and respect for Logan’s writing and characters is evident in the tight control of the action and the gritty, realistic set and lighting (Lucilla Smith and Nick Higgins).

It is good to see a really meaty play such as Red at the Ensemble. Its intimate stage is perfect for the almost claustrophobic intensity of the work – and between them Kilmurry, Moody and King have found the theatrical essence of Logan’s message … “Painting, like every other art, is a language by which you communicate something about the world.”  ROTHKO

Carol Wimmer

Images: (top) Colin Moody & (lower) Stephen James King and Colin Moody. Photographer: Natalie Boog.

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