Henri Rousseau, The Virgin Forest at Sunset, 1907
Many years ago I got a very mixed review for the first original work of theatre I wrote for the stage, a play about the notorious Scopes Monkey trial in Dayton, Tennessee. The reviewer said my play didn't give my good actors enough to do. The line went in as easily as a stiletto,and cut to the quick. I liked my play, and still do, but there was some justice in the observation. A really good play gives good actors something good to do. Hamlet springs to mind . . .
And so does John Logan's new play, Red. I saw it in London 3 years ago, where it was a smash hit. I got a standing room only ticket and stood high up holding on to a rail at the Donmar Warehouse, and its 90 minutes flew by. We had the good luck to meet with another playwright shortly afterwards, Sir Tom Stoppard, and he was just as enthusiastic. "Did you see Red," he asked. "Wasn't the acting marvellous!" It was marvellous, but it was so partly because the playwright was throwing some very good meat, red meat, to his two hungry lions. Logan gave these guys lots to do.
You might not think so on first reading. The play takes place entirely in an artist's studio, and what they do is talk. Well, really, Mark Rothko talks--and talks, and talks. But his talk is a kind of doing, since he is taking on the universe, the entire history of art, his place in the firmament, the meaning of painting, his fellow contemporaries, public taste, Frederich Nietzsche, and the color red. For starters. Mostly his young and awed assistant listens, but then we learn he has a story to tell of his own, and finally, very late in the play, he confronts the Great Man directlly, and believe me, that takes some doing.
To give one example of talk as action, there is a moment in the play where the two artists trade variations of the color red with images, as if they were tennis players volleying at the net. The conversation goes like this:
KEN "Sunrise is red and red is sunrise."
Red is heartbeat
Red is passion. Red wine. Red roses.
Red lipstick. Beets. Tulips. Peppers.
ROTHKO: Aterial blood.
KEN That too.
ROTHKO Rust on the bike on the lawn
KEN And apples ... and tomatoes
ROTHKO Dresden firestorm at night
The sun in Rousseau,
The flag in Delacroix, the robe in El Greco
KEN A rabbit's nose. An albino's eyes. A parakeet.
ROTHKO Florentine marble. Atomic flash.
Nick yourself shaving. Blood in the Barbasol.
KEN The ruby slippers. Technicolor.That phone to the Kremlin on the President's desk.
ROTHKO Russian flag. Nazi Flag. Chinese Flag.
KEN Persmimmons. Pomegranates.
Red Light District. Red tape. Rouge.
ROTHKO Lava. Lobsters. Scorpions.
KEN Stop sign. Sports car. A blush.
ROTHKO Viscera. Flame. Dead Fauvists.
KEN Traffic lights. Titian hair.
ROTHKO: Slash your wrist. Blood in the sink.
KEN Santa Claus
(Beat). So. . . red.
As you can see there's a lot of red bouncing off these walls. And there's a lot more red on our set. Rothko's reds. You can find out more about them here.
And you can come see some very red blooded actors in this very passionate play, too. We strongly recommend it.