There’s a chapel in a suburb of Houston, Texas, whose hexagonal walls each carry a black or nearly-black canvas by the painter Mark Rothko.

When I went there, I thought it a lonely, eerie space which can be meditative or depressing, depending on your own mood. Yet these pictures mark the culmination of a life’s work in colour.  Rothko was an unknown abstract expressionist until 1959. when the architects of New York’s prestige Four Seasons restaurant asked him to provide large scale paintings for decoration. The $35,000 that was paid to Rothko marked the highest value commission of an artist in America.

Having begun the paintings, Rothko dined at the restaurant one evening to scope it out. On finding the clientele pretentious, arrogant and at odds with everything in his Ukranian Jewish heritage, he tore up his contract, returned the money and eventually gifted eight of the pieces to the Tate Modern in London. They’re still there in room 3, and worth a look.

John Logan’s play focuses on Rothko in the throes of creating these masterworks.  In Michael Grandage’s tight, revived production (that first played at the Donmar Warehouse in 2009) all the technical elements serve to surround Alfred Molina, as Rothko, with excellence.

The replica canvases themselves, strung up in an enormous atelier as part of Christopher Oram‘s finely detailed scenic design, are variously dull and dark or glow mysteriously under Neil Austin’s bravura lighting design.  Music from Chet Baker to Gluck to opera attends the artist’s musings as Adam Cork’s sound design punctuates both the action and the scene changes with style.

Rothko is voiced with authority by Molina in a meticulously well-observed characterization as he shares his internal dialogue with Ken, a fictitious assistant played tautly – and possibly better than the original Eddie Redmayne – by Alfred Enoch whose own ‘story’ is neatly, if slightly melodramatically, linked to the dried blood colours of Rothko’s paintings.

Molina grows visibly both as a character and an actor during the performance: sarcasm, pain, pathos and anger all feel real, and the hints at future despair and suicide are as subtle as sighs.

There’s a stupendous scene in which the two work as a team to ‘size’ a canvas, filling the panel and spattering themselves with gore.  It’s physically thrilling: part ballet, part competition, part fight, played by the actors facing entirely away from the audience in one of the best wordless two-person scenes you could hope to encounter.

This is not Yasmina Reza’s Art, – a jejune 1990’s comedy vehicle for three luvvies off the telly to make cheap jibes about modern painting – rather, it’s an intense, well-written and tightly directed drama that in ninety minutes provides a rare insight into a man whose work seems baffling to the untutored eye.

Tutor yourselves, go and see it.  Then go to the Tate.

 

 

Until July 28

originally written for jonathanbaz.com