'Red' provokes artist's passion and power battle
"GO ON, I'm fascinated by me."
Pompous. Arrogant. Self-involved. Brilliant.
Colin Friels skillfully took his audience at Brisbane's Playhouse Theatre inside an artist's mind; his delivery of the above line to his assistant in the play Red epitomising his character Mark Rothko.
Rothko was an abstract expressionism artist in his 50s who took on a $35,000 commission to create an artwork series for the Four Seasons Hotel's restaurant.
Set in New York in 1958-59, Rothko hires an old gymnasium to paint his wall canvases in a large space and takes on assistant Ken, a 20-year-old aspiring artist, to help him.
Rothko's paintings for the Seagram building are dark - deep reds, maroon and black.
His classic line, as the pair on stage wrestle with the emotions each colour can evoke, is: "There is only one thing I fear in life, my friend ... one day the black will swallow the red".
While Ken stretches the canvases, mixes paints and cleans brushes, he brashly questions Rothko's theories on art and his decision to work on a commercial project, for a price almost unheard of in that era.
The power battle between two men on stage is engaging; grappling not just with their diverged views on art but the complex relationship between teacher and student, employee and boss.
The script really gets you thinking, making you challenge the views you hold too, not just those aired on stage.
Too often these days we rush to conclusions and it is a breath of fresh air when someone tests our beliefs in a constructive way.
Though, at times, it could be a little too intellectual, wordy and hard to follow after a long week at work.
As Rothko becomes increasingly frustrated with how the new generation artist views art, he denigrates Ken until he snaps.
The watershed moment when his assistant lets loose in a fiery "red" torrent of words confirms everything the audience has been thinking.
When asked if he is fired, Friels says: "no, now finally you exist".
One can't help but wonder whether he is talking about himself.
Has script writer John Logan created an imaginary figure designed to challenge Rothko, to provoke his own unique thought processes?
History tells us Rothko did have assistants but the play leaves this thought to interpretation.
The most powerful moment in Red is when the pair "silently" prepare themselves to actually paint a canvas.
They stir paint, ready the tins, blast classical music and then slap deep red across the white surface like men possessed.
The audience gets a true sense of the passion and the intensity of art being created, when the inspiration finally comes.
Although set in a dimly lit room to maintain the dramatic atmosphere Rothko desired, the various lighting techniques used at the Playhouse really showed how much light can affect a painting.
Sometimes Rothko's paintings looked dull and lifeless but certain lights brought the tragedy he intended his paintings to depict to life, having a powerful effect on the view.
Upon eating a meal at the restaurant where he was supposed to hang his paintings, Rothko famously paid back his $35,000 commission.
"Anybody who will eat that kind of food for those kind of prices will never look at a painting of mine."
Rothko later committed suicide after he was told medically he could no longer paint huge canvases.
I guess the black eventually did swallow the red.
*Red runs at the Playhouse Theatre in Brisbane's Queensland Performing Arts Centre until May 19.