REVIEW: MTC presents RED

A fierce clash of power and art

By Brad Storer

MTC’s new production, John Logan’s Red, opened last night inside an artist’s studio with canvases and paints strewn everywhere. What is not so apparent at first is the artist himself, hidden in a solitary corner silently appraising the work laid before him.

The play is based around real-life painter Mark Rothko (Colin Friels) and his (fictionalized) relationship with young assistant Ken (Andre de Vanny). Any chance of this play turning into an sentimental and clichéd depiction of intellectual exchange between aging artist and younger apprentice is smashed in the very first scene when Rothko coldly remarks to his newly-arrived helper that he is not father, mentor or psychologist – ‘You are my employee’.

Red is foremost a play of ideas – scenes mix discussion of the works of Pollock with Nietzschean conceptions of the Apollonian and Dionysian impulses of the human psyche, and ancient myth with Andy Warhol and Pop Art. The tempestuous conflicts between Rothko and Ken debate the fundamentals of art and what it means to be an artist, as well as the relationship between a work of art and its observers. This is reinforced by the two staring out at us, supposedly at a painting hanging on the fourth wall, but this serves as a continual reminder of our status as consumers and observers of art and to re-evaluate our relationship with what we see.   

Although there are two characters onstage at nearly all times, the real duality which becomes apparent is between Rothko and his mammoth and ferocious ego. Rothko declares at one point that ‘stasis is death’, and Friels clearly takes this maxim to heart in his characterization – his portrayal is a magnificent whirlwind of bravado, fierce pride, high intellectualism, pained bitterness and staunch idealism, often co-existing simultaneously or changing without warning. His character resists easy designation: bellowing his fury at the crumbling standards of modern artists one second, the next filled with tender paternal care over his own artistic creations.

De Vanny is given a role which could easily become merely a sounding board for the ramblings of the more flamboyant Rothko, but De Vanny emphasizes from the very first Ken’s spine and own intellectual strength. This culminates in a brilliant and hilarious scene where the assistant turns his repressed anger against his employer, who is so stunned he is forced into silence for what seems the first time in the play.

De Vanny and Friels make a fantastic pair, each filled with their own artistic fire and vision, driving the play towards its breathtaking conclusion, where in an inspired use of lighting the play’s reoccurring motifs of colour and light return for one final moment, now charged with infinite meaning after the events we have seen, creating a theatrical coup-de-grace stunning in its intensity and simplicity.

22nd March – 5th May, 2012

Tickets: www.mtc.com.au

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