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A CurtainUp Review
We meet Rothko in the late 1950s when he has been commissioned to paint a series of 40 canvases for the Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson designed Seagram Building. It is for the Four Seasons Restaurant dining room that the disturbing dark red and brown paintings are intended.
Molina's portrait of the artist is as moody and intense as the paintings. He rages and tells us how he and De Kooning destroyed cubism and Picasso. Later in the play he rails against those artists who were to follow him in gaining popularity, hating the pop art of Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol which he dubs "zeitgeist" art. Rothko talks about the tyranny of the beautiful and says that he doesn't want his art to be over the mantel interior decor which ironically large numbers of prints of Rothko's work have become.
Rothko paints to stretches of inspiring space filling, classical music — Mozart, Haydn and Gluck or jazz from Chet Baker. The most exciting scene has Ken and Rothko, accompanied by opera, together paint the base red coat on one of the eight feet square canvases, getting splattered in paint in the passion of painting. This scene is frenetic and conveys more of the emotional intensity placed in art than any amount of words. Both the artist and his assistant end up with their faces splattered with blood red paint like workers in a chaotic abattoir.
Set designer Christopher Oram has rigged up the large pulley system that Rothko used in his Bowery studio to see the pictures vertically as they would be hung. In the course of the play we see several different canvases as each is brought out and hoisted on the pulleys.
Molina gives us Rothko as a moody, difficult man, angry and uncompromising in his ideals. We look at one of the large paintings with two black rectangles on a red background. Rothko, passionate but bullying, asks whether we can see the aperture, the gaping mouth. As Ken says condemningly of the master, "I can't imagine any painter in the history of art tried to be so significant!"
The playwright has included biographical snippets from Rothko's childhood and life so we learn about the man: witnessing the pogroms against the Jews in Eastern Europe, coming to America as a child and going to rabbinical school. Eddie Redmayne has a rather thankless part as the foil to the artist, initially stifling his own emotions but later maturing into an artist of his own generation with his own ideas.
Of course Rothko ended up rejecting the restaurant venue for his art, repaying the $35,000 advance and donating some to the Tate in London where nine of the "restaurant" paintings now have a room of their own. They are dark and unrelenting, angry and brooding, lit only by natural daylight. Rothko told Harper's journalist John Fischer this about the restaurant commission: "I hope to ruin the appetite of every son of a bitch who ever eats in that room with paintings that will make those rich bastards feel that they are trapped in a room where all the doors and windows are bricked up.".
Michael Grandage and Christopher Oram have together created a wonderfully visual and searing production. In the closing scenes Neil Austin lights the paintings so that they lose that dark, dried oxblood red and become something more vibrant. When the paintings are moved the backdrop shows blood splattered walls reminding me of the current exhibition of Anish Kapoor's red wax splattered walls, where the door filling red wax extrudes through the doorway arches. I can't help thinking if Rothko had approved of any other artist, he would have approved of this work of Kapoor's. After the Donmar's Red I shall be revisiting the Tate Rothkos with a different perception.
The London production was reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge at the Donmar Warehouse on December 9.2009.