This Christmas, audiences could have seen Clive Rowe as Dame in Aladdin at the Hackney Empire, or, if they were truly adventurous, Mickey Rooney, Anthea Turner and Bobby Davro in Cinderella at Milton Keynes. Or they could have chosen Red at the Donmar Warehouse in Covent Garden – 100 minutes of abstract impressionist angst, without an interval, as Mark Rothko wrestles with his conscience over 40 dark red and brown paintings (commissioned for the Seagram Building’s Four Seasons restaurant in New York). No dancing and no community singing. On the face of it, an evening with little festive promise, and indeed Red is as claustrophobic and austere as it is possible to get without anyone actually weeping in the audience.
But such high thoughts are perhaps good for us in moderation for the play is spellbinding, despite being little more than a dramatised lecture. You may get very irritated by some eye-wateringly preten tious dialogue on Apollonian and Dionysian impulses in post-war American art, and the line “selling a painting is like sending a blind child into a room full of razor blades” would not have been heard in Widow Twankey and Wishy Washy’s laundry in Hackney. Yet Red reveals with great insight an admirably highminded artist at the height of his powers. For those who free their feelings and prejudices, Rothko’s paintings are unforgettable and strangely reassuring in this age full of anxiety and triviality. His work deals with big issues of perception and sensitivity and the play is about the painting process. This makes it even more unusual in our tiresome celebrity culture. There are several moments when one is left alone with a mysterious Seagram canvas, beautifully reproduced, and they are almost as mesmeric as when seen in the tight, hemmed-in gallery at the Tate. There we stand face to face with the mystery this extraordinary man is attempting to reveal. Rothko seems to be insisting, as he does loudly in this play to his young assistant, that we must just try to be human beings.
Alfred Molina acts Rothko and Eddie Redmayne plays his assistant, Ken, in Christopher Oram’s atmospheric recreation of Rothko’s New York windowless studio, and under the direction of Michael Grandage they bring a colossal sobriety to the auditorium. There is very little giggling in the stalls. Any passing thoughts about whether Todd Carty’s Buttons will set the Cinderella audience cheering at the Worthing Pavilion this winter evaporated for me when Molina wandered to the front of the stage, stared into space (that is, into one of his pictures), and half-whispered: “Silence is so accurate.” Rothko belittles an exuberant artist rival as “forced gaiety at gunpoint”, but sadly this did remind me that it would only be at gunpoint that I could bring myself to travel down and see Joe Hole in the Wall Swash as Prince Charming in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs at the Bristol Hippodrome.
Molina captures the artist’s legendary commitment and self-sacrifice without sentimentalising his infamously tricky personality. On the page I suspect the part of Ken may look a bit of a cipher but Eddie Redmayne is one of a dozen or so really wonderful young actors working in London, and he brings strength and integrity to a character which seems at first in danger of being emotionally overwhelmed. The evening is particularly memorable for the one truly physical moment in the play when the effort and joy of working is beautifully transmitted as the two men prime a canvas red amid a flurry of dodging and weaving with dripping brushes.
Red is honourable and challenging – and, for me, it was the perfect antidote to all the seasonal theatrical bonhomie. But I should add, in defence of the modern panto, that I have fond memories of Norman Wisdom in “Turn Again, Whittington” at the London Palladium. Mind you, I was 11 at the time.