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Review Round-up: Critics See Red at Donmar?

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John Logan's art-centred new play Red, marking a much-anticipated return to the London stage for Alfred Molina, opened at the Donmar Warehouse this week (See 1st Night Photos, 9 Dec 2009).

Directed by Michael Grandage and co-starring Eddie Redmayne, Red examines artist Mark Rothko (Molina) who, under the watchful gaze of his young assistant and the threatening presence of a new generation of artists, takes on his greatest challenge yet: to create a definitive work for an extraordinary setting.

Most overnight critics gave a resounding thumbs up to Red, though Charles Spencer of the Daily Telegraph was a notable dissenter with a two-star review. Among the play's admirers, most felt that Logan (who wrote the screenplay for Gladiator) has made a successful transition from screen-to-stage, and praised his depiction of Rothko as, in the words of the Daily Mail's Quentin Letts, an “argumentative monster”. On the acting front, it appears the long wait for Molina's London return was worth it, as both he and Redmayne were found to be in “exhilarating form”.

  • Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (four stars) - “Two reasons to rejoice at the Donmar: a really good play about art (Art is about friendship, not art), something of a rarity, by an unknown writer, John Logan, and the overdue return to the stage of Alfred Molina as the gloomy dauber Mark Rothko. Molina’s already in situ when the audience enters, contemplating his big red squares and black blodges in designer Christopher Oram’s brilliant evocation of the painter’s studio, full of frames and canvases ... Molina, physically momentous, shaven-headed and deeply concentrated, challenges Redmayne to match him with his own diatribes, enthusiasm and sad account of parents in Iowa who were murdered; this episode of snow, blood and urine is almost a composition in itself. Selling a painting, says Molina’s Rothko, is like sending a blind child into a roomful of razor blades. It’s a chilling metaphor in a marvellous piece of theatre, too, about the artist’s relationship with his patron, a theme perfectly suited to the smartly sponsored Donmar and its audience.”

  • Michael Billington in the Guardian (four stars) - “Plays about painters are fraught with difficulty. Either the hero preaches about art without practising it, or the Bohemian lifestyle supersedes the work. But John Logan's play about Mark Rothko overcomes these obstacles with finesse: partly because, for Rothko, ideas were inseparable from art, and partly because of the tensions within the paintings themselves which Rothko once described as 'dramas' … Whatever Rothko's suicidal fate, here ingeniously intimated, you feel designer Christopher Oram must have had a ball creating a set of replica canvasses. And Michael Grandage's beautiful production is, as always, actor-driven. Alfred Molina, with his large frame and beetling eyebrows, has exactly the fierce intensity of an artist whose paintings were a dynamic battle between Apollo and Dionysus, and who once said that he saw art as a means of direct access to the 'wild terror and suffering' at the heart of human existence. And Eddie Redmayne as Ken moves with total ease from nervous pupil to combative antagonist. It's a measure of the play's success that it makes you want to rush out and renew acquaintance with Rothko's work.”

  • Charles Spencer in the Telegraph (two stars) - “Philip Larkin once said that art about art wasn’t really art at all, and his words echoed in my mind during much of John Logan’s new play about the great American abstract expressionist, Mark Rothko … Unfortunately the play, which uses the tired device of a new assistant arriving at the studio, so that Rothko can bang on about his art, life and opinions, is far less riveting than the paintings themselves, superbly re-created in Christopher Oram’s wonderful design. Logan depicts Rothko as a hectoring bully, who is entirely uninterested in his assistant, even when the young man reveals that his parents were stabbed to death when he was a child. This, in short, is a portrait of the artist as an insufferable egotist … Red will almost certainly become a snob hit among the chattering classes, who will then go on to patronise the kind of swanky restaurant Rothko despised and discuss the play over the starters. But it strikes me as a second-rate piece that diminishes a great artist while bumming a ride on a talent far greater than the playwright possesses himself.”

  • Paul Taylor in the Independent (four stars) - “For the kind of intense, but often bitchily witty debate that the play conducts, it would be hard to think of better casting. A shaven-headed, bespectacled Alfred Molina plays Rothko splendidly as an almost Asperger's-syndrome, tunnel-visioned visionary who is exorbitantly intent on turning his studio - and life - into a stage-managed theatrical set where the work can be seen in the best possible artificial light. As Ken, Eddie Redmayne gives further proof that he looks set to become the Mark Rylance of his generation. (Praise can't reach higher than that.) Here, he plays an initially meek assistant who is goaded into stingingly sarcastic arias of repudiation of Rothko and his values. Lean and whippety, Redmayne combines highly strung intelligence with the knack of seeming to have one layer of skin and one keenly apprehensive sense more than other people. So he's thrilling to watch as, heart clearly thumping and adrenal system in overdrive, his Ken inveighs against Rothko's over-investment in the expressive properties of colour … You can see from the fervent but catty dogmatism of Ken's own manner, as he gradually turns into the proponent of proto-Pop Art, that one day he will be the father-who-needs-to-be-killed to a youthful assistant of his own.”

  • Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail (five stars)- “Playwright John Logan's depiction of Rothko is fascinating. Here is an intellect better at words than with a paintbrush. Here is an argumentative monster, a 'rabbinical' tyrant, a namedropper, money grabber, a bully who will chew over every nuance of a colour yet whose paintings remain - to many of us - ridiculously meaningless blobs and splodges. This Rothko would have been a much better critic than artist. He is cast as a preening egomaniac who, having helped bump off the cubists, is outraged when his own artistic school of abstract expressionism is ousted by the equally vacuous fashion for pop art. Hah! Shoved aside by Warhol … A telling toad at times, though. Rothko rails against the valuelessness of so much modernity, the fear people have of artistic hatred, the 'tyranny of fine' whereby every point of view must be valid. He lacks the self-knowledge to see that it was precisely this tolerance which allowed his own bogus daubs to become cherished as masterpieces - not least in modern London, where they were recently exhibited to pious squeaks of conformist delight. Rothko finally takes his leave of Ken with the advice: 'Make something new.' New. Was that all he came down to in the end?”

  • Benedict Nightingale in The Times (four stars) - “Timberlake Wertenbaker’s Degas play The Line received such iffy reviews the other day that she accused critics of having got their brains hammered at a boozy awards lunch. I plead not guilty, yet I am a bit puzzled why I liked John Logan’s Rothko play so much more than her worthy attempt to enter a major artist’s studio … The answer, surely, is the power both of Michael Grandage’s production and of a script by the Hollywood screenwriter who gave us Gladiator. Moreover, Molina’s blunt, bitter, baleful Rothko is able to communicate a ferocious pessimism to Eddie Redmayne’s Ken, the aspiring artist who becomes his assistant and much misused lackey … I wasn’t wholly convinced by Logan’s attempt to deepen Ken’s character by giving him a past in which his parents were murdered by burglars. But Rothko’s denunciation of the growing triviality of an America in love with fame, celebrity and Andy Warhol carried me with it.”

  • Henry Hitchings in the Evening Standard (four stars) - “Everything takes place in Rothko’s studio, an old gymnasium - precisely conceived by designer Christopher Oram. We watch Rothko and Ken in concert: Rothko dogmatically expounds his vision, and gradually Ken asserts his opposition. In an especially powerful scene the two men aggressively prime a bare canvas, emerging from the experience spattered with blood-red paint as though they’ve just slumped off the set of Titus Andronicus. It is the most dynamic episode in a play that some will find too talky and cerebral … But Logan, whose screen credits include Gladiator, has crafted a play that deals intelligently with the trials of creativity … Dripping as it does with artsy grandiloquence, Red is a play that will divide audiences. However, both Molina and Redmayne are in exhilarating form and Grandage has satisfyingly choreographed their chemistry.”
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