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John Logan's Red in rehearsals for Michael Grandage Company. Alfred Molina (Mark Rothko) and Alfred Enoch (Ken) Photo: Marc Brenner

RED – A Rehearsal Visit

25 April 2018 Suzanne Frost

Just as Mark Rothko set up his studios in very obscure places, we are off to a church in Islington where the team has built their rehearsal space and the dimensions of the Wyndham’s Theatre has been set down with markers. John Logan’s play RED, about the painter Mark Rothko was first shown at the Donmar Warehouse in 2009 for a short run before going straight to Broadway, where it won six Tony Awards, the most wins out of any other production that season.

“All London ever saw of RED was that one short run, so it felt like unfinished business”, explains Michael Grandage, the director of the first run and this revival.  “There are only 250 seats at the Donmar so it was only ever seen by a few people. We wanted to open it up to a bigger wider demographic and give people the chance to see this play.” That's why now, 9 years after its original run, they are treating it like a new play and a West End debut. The actor back then and now, in London and New York, has always been Alfred Molina (who shaves his statement shock of black hair for the part). “I personally couldn’t imagine working with another actor in this role”, affirms Grandage. The other character in the play is his young assistant Ken. And since “you can carry on being Rothko, but you can’t carry on being a young assistant forever” Molina had numerous young actors playing opposite him, from Eddie Redmayne in 2009 to Jonathan Groff on Broadway. For the West End premiere Ken will be played by Alfred Enoch.

 John Logan's Red in rehearsals for Michael Grandage Company. Alfred Enoch (Ken) Photo: Marc Brenner

But before we sit down to talk to the two Alfreds (in a production that only has two characters - Molina goes by the name of Fred to everyone who knows him, Enoch is Alfie) we get a tour of the set. “Let me show you my shoes!” cries Grandage and reveals red stained soles. Everything on stage is covered or splattered with a layer of red paint, not a vibrant shade but a deep, dirty, murky red and the actors come home covered in it.

Rothko’s studio, which the set recreates in detail, was in 222 Bowery in NY, an old gymnasium that he moved into in the late 50’s. Around his studio there were a number of canvases leaning against the walls, with a pulley system where he and his assistant would attach a painting and then pull it up to work on it. Before he worked on any paintings he primed the canvases in the base colour of his work. In 1958/59 Rothko went through a red phase. Later he went to blues and blacks. “But fascinatingly, he went very very light and colourful just before he committed suicide”, Grandage imparts. What does the colour red mean? “…heart beat, passion, red wine, red roses, red lipstick, tulips, peppers, arterial blood, rust…” Grandage quotes a scene from the script. “The whole point of the show is to try to invite the audience to understand what red means to you. To some people it’s an emotion not just a colour! “

 John Logan's Red in rehearsals for Michael Grandage Company. Alfred Molina (Mark Rothko) Photo: Marc Brenner

There are personal items, an ashtray, a lighter, a coffee maker, a box of receipts, all covered with a layer of red. Rothko’s studio was a very dark, claustrophobic space and he set the lighting in a particular way to create a specific atmosphere in which to experience his paintings. “We try and emulate that as best as we can. Our audience will come into a very particular, cavernous space at Wyndham’s, like voyeurs into an environment that feel almost like a lock-in. The play takes you through the artist’s studio in more detail than I know of in any stage play. There are very successful plays written about artists but none about the process of making art in this way”, says Grandage. “During this play you see canvases being primed, you see paint being mixed, frames being made. You can smell the workings of an artist’s studios in the mid 20th century which I think is very exciting.”

 John Logan's Red in rehearsals for Michael Grandage Company. Alfred Molina (Mark Rothko) and Alfred Enoch (Ken) Photo: Marc Brenner

So for the show, the two actors actually had to learn how to prime and do it properly. “Painting is hard physical work, particularly when you work with big frames like Rothko”, Molina tells us. “That’s why he needed assistance. It’s hard work, it’s sweaty work, and it takes time. Painting is not for wimps.”  And, fantastic story-teller that he is, he launches into an anecdote about how he started doodling on napkins in restaurants in the style of Rothko and now has a whole collection of napkin artworks that he calls ‘Frothkos’. 

He is full of praise for his young acting partner Enoch: “Alfie comes with an amazing amount of skill and intelligence and sensitivity. If I had been as aware and skilled when I was his age, I’d have been very happy.” Enoch speaks of the great freedom he was given to interpret the role in his own way and of the pleasure of working with Molina: “This certainly is a much more welcoming room than what Ken walks into at the beginning of the play.” The story, a 90-minute debate between the two men, explores the journey between Rothko and his assistant uncovering father-son, master-servant and teacher-student elements in their dynamic over a period of two years.

 John Logan's Red in rehearsals for Michael Grandage Company. Michael Grandage (Director) Photo: Marc Brenner

Why is this play important right now? Grandage has a passionate answer: “The central theme of the play is why art matters, now more than ever. With all the cuts to art funding, here we have a great artist of the 20th century really talking about his central ethos and why art is based in intelligence and reading; and there is a parallel argument between our play and Rothko about why he wants to make people experience his art and us making sure that we reach as wide a demographic as possible with our play. So why art matters for him and why art matters for us, is all playing in tandem. I think the role of performance in society is an even more pertinent story right now than it was when the play was first written, and people are hungry for that debate.  How we reach people with art is at the centre of this play. The timing couldn’t be better. Like all great drama it doesn’t have to be set now, to have a debate about now. “
 
“I want the audience to take away some hope from this play; I believe that is our duty as artists. This isn’t one of the great tragic plays; it offers a really serious debate about why art can change your life, so what I would love is that audiences have their life changed. And while I think it is a very entertaining 90 minutes, this is a play that should really make you think.”
 
RED is at the Wyndham’s Theatre from 1 May – 28 July.
 
 
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