Review: Red ~ theatre notes

Sunday, April 01, 2012

Review: Red

A few years ago, I spent some time with the Seagram Rothkos in the Tate Modern collection. Grouped together in a specially designed gallery, they are extraordinary paintings: their profound reds and blacks create thresholds of light and darkness, unstable luminosities that grow more profound the more you look. They are invitations to a pregnant emptiness, doorways - two-faced, like the Roman god Janus - which at once forbid entrance and draw the viewer into their ambiguous interiorities. More than anything, they seemed to me to be like stages: framed spaces which vibrate with mysterious potential. Something may have happened, or be about to happen. Or it may have been happening while I was looking.

It is, as Rilke said of the theatre, all in the gaze: "gazing so intensely that as my gaze / at last swings up, an angel is forced down..." Through the intense relationship of looking, the human impulse towards the divine inhabits the material world, for a brief, inexpressible moment. Inexpressible because it's impossible to find words for that suspended feeling of simultaneous entrapment and liberation, of irredeemable bleakness and strange joy. They are paintings precisely because words are not sufficient. As Sean Scully says, Rothko's works with colour "communicate a fully lit and orchestrated generosity... Wherever they are placed, the works inhabit and light the space without trying to control it. Theirs is simply an act of giving."

Colin Friels and André de Vanny in Red. Photo: Jeff Busby

Given this sense of the stage, and especially of exchange with a viewer, it was no great surprise to discover later that theatre was of major importance to Mark Rothko. In one of his most famous essays, The Romantics Were Prompted, he said: "I think of my paintings as dramas; the shapes in the pictures are the performers. They have been created from the need for a group of actors who are able to move dramatically without embarrassment and execute gestures without shame.... They begin as an unknown gesture in an unknown space. It is at the moment of completion that in a flash of recognition, they are seen to have the quantity and function which was intended. Ideas and plans that existed in the mind at the start were simply the doorway through which one left the world in which occur.... The presentation of this drama in the familiar world was never possible... [My emphasis]"

Rothko's interest in theatre was practical as much as theoretical: in the 1920s, he trained and worked as a actor, and he applied, without success, to join the American Theatre Laboratory, a company then at the forefront of American avant garde theatre. The Laboratory had a direct link to the Russian director Stanislavski, and its students included Lee Strasberg, Harold Clurman and Stella Adler, all of whom went on to enormously influence American theatre. Stanislavski himself was a colleague and defender of that other great Russian director, Meyerhold: although the two are often thought to be at loggerheads, in reality their admiration was mutual. Stanislavski remained loyal to Meyerhold even after Meyerhold was murdered by Stalin's police.

This gives an interesting gloss to Colin Friels's attacks, retailed to everyone who will listen, about the present state of theatre, and in particular his attacks on the auteur director. In playing Mark Rothko in John Logan's play Red, Friels is portraying an artist who is a premier avant gardist of his time and an ultimate auteur: a man who insisted on the philosophical and literary thought behind his painting, and who believed that his individual vision, and especially his feeling, could be communicated to others through his work. One can't but wonder how Friels negotiates the contradictions of his convictions in playing Rothko, but it must be admitted that he's helped by the play. Here the artist is erased by his persona, in a representation that is ultimately as vulgar as the crude copies of the Seagram murals that we see on stage.

Red is a bricolage of Rothko's writings about art and the playwright's invention. This is animated as a Socratic dialogue between Rothko and a fictional assistant Ken (André de Vanny). The narrative focuses on the Seagram commission, then the richest in the art world, for seven paintings to adorn the signature restaurant, The Four Seasons. Eventually Rothko painted 30 canvases, but when he finally visited the restaurant he rejected the commission and sent the money back, reportedly entering his studio in a rage and declaring: "Anyone who will eat that kind of food for those kind of prices will never look at a painting of mine!"

Ken is an aspiring painter who represents the new generation of artists - Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol - who will sweep away Rothko's generation, the New York School. Here the play enacts an oedipal drama, the father confronted and finally destroyed by the son. It's by no means certain whether Rothko himself was as ungenerous to younger painters as he is shown here - his son Christopher made some noises to that effect - but it certainly makes for the conflict necessary for a certain kind of drama.

The text is dense with Rothko's ideas - his fascination with earlier art, with Nietzsche's The Birth of Tragedy and classical tragedy (especially Aeschylus); his impatience with the art market; his intense and sometimes bitter arguments with the art of his own time. But these are reshaped for sake of the play, and pressed into a larger service: the portrait of the artist as tragic antihero, the monstrous egotist and outsider.

I guess it's no accident that this idea is a popular one: the artist-as-antihero is an easy dramatic reach for an artist like Rothko, and feeds into the myths that grew around his suicide in 1970. But it's inevitably reductive. Here we are given no hint of the artist who taught children for decades, writing extensively on child art, nor of the person who wrote an entire collection of meditations (Philosophies of Art) without once using the word "I". Expression here is self-expression in the most reduced sense.

Even the title, Red, leads to a pseudo-psychological riff on its emotional associations, of the kind I was given as a writing exercise in primary school. However true it might be that the emotional power of Rothko's paintings emerged from his life, their luminosities and colour were drawn from earlier painters, reaching to the Renaissance and further back, to the Romans and Greeks: the Venetian painters he admired, the Roman friezes of Pompeii. Aside from Matisse's The Red Studio, little mention is made of the artistic sources of Rothko's colours.

Worse, the tragedy that Rothko so often invoked in his work - the tragedy of what? Consciousness facing the mortality that consciousness itself makes palpable? Hope in the face of death? - is reduced to its crassest meaning when Ken is given an interestingly tragic past. A bitten statement that "the artist must starve!" is, I suspect, a reduction of something rather more subtle that Rothko said in The Dilemma of the Artist: "The freedom to starve! Ironical indeed. Yet hold your laughter. Do not underestimate the privilege. The denial of this right is no less ironical: think of the condemned criminal who will not eat and is fed by force, if need be, until the day of his execution. Concerning hunger, as concerning art, society has traditionally been dogmatic. One had to starve legitimately - through famine or blight, through unemployment or exploitation - or not at all." In short, the emphasis is on the choice to starve, "which implies responsibility to one's own conscience".

Worst of all, perhaps, Logan has Rothko excoriating "beauty", equating it with prettiness and niceness: we have Rothko claiming that beauty is the acme of the bourgeois artworld he despised (though there's Matisse, of course, an explicitly decorative artist, whom Rothko wholeheartedly admired...) Rothko in fact took beauty very seriously: he used beauty ("for the lack of a better noun") to describe "the total aim of the painting process". It was, he said, an emotional experience, an "exaltation...composed of sentiment, sensation, and, in its highest state, intellectual approbation". Beauty and transcendence, both major preoccupations of Rothko's thought, are in fact scarcely mentioned in the play.

These might seem - indeed, they are - pedantic quibbles, but stroke by stroke they build an overweening falsity that scrapes badly against the rhetorical flourishes towards truth that stud the text. The falsity arises from the central conceit of making the dramatised persona of the artist the locus of interest: the art is contained and made significant within a personality. This inverts a central process in Rothko's work, in which the artist's personality is absorbed in and transcended by the work. This focus on the persona is also, ironically enough given Rothko's predilections, a commonplace of the market: in today's world, the artist sells herself to sell her work. It was an ethos Rothko railed against, although even he couldn't escape it. As this play demonstrates all too well.

This discomfort is heightened by the naturalistic conceit of the production: there is nothing in its formal approach that grapples with the difficulties of Rothko's work (especially with his insistence on transcendence); rather, as an easily-absorbed dramatic narrative presented in a comfortable theatre, it flattens them out for ease of consumption. I think it was a mistake to represent the paintings themselves: here they are lifeless, with no sense of light or dimension, except when some crafty lighting gives them an over-heightened gloss.

Despite all this, there's no doubt that on its own terms, Alkinos Tsilimidos, in his debut production for the MTC, has given the play a good, if slightly sticky, production. Shaun Gurton's set is a naturalistic representation of the artist's studio, down to every detail: it's a high-ceilinged brick warehouse lined with shelves crowded with working materials, canvases stacked against the wall. The design worked best in the gorgeous interludes between scenes, when the sounds of the city rose up around the empty studio and passing lights - red, blue - shone through the high windows and illuminated the set: it was in those moments that I felt a sudden visceral glimpse of the life that illuminated the paintings.

In the role of Rothko, Friels holds attention with assurance: it's a dominating, detailed performance, which he attacks with masculine relish and an unfaltering confidence. This performance is most truthful in how Friels performs the artist's relationship to his work: he approaches it like a prize fighter, as a physical confrontation with his materials. It's tribute to de Vanny, an actor of whom I'm sure we'll see more, that as the assistant he holds his own against Friels.

Yet, for all the text's intoning about the "seriousness" of art, little in the production's aesthetic seriously addresses Rothko's work: we get instead a highly partial dramatised lecture. In the end, the contradictions of subject and form were too much for me. I felt very sorry for Mark Rothko, even though these days he can't care very much. One can't expect, in 90 minutes, to be given the complexities of a lifetime's work and thought, and perhaps the truthfulness of Rothko's work, its complex sensuous power, can only be experienced firsthand. The paintings are, after all, dramas whose "presentation ... in the familiar world was never possible..." The only hope is that perhaps the play might prompt those unfamiliar with Rothko's work to investigate it for themselves.

Red, by John Logan, directed by Alkinos Tsilimidos. Set design by Shaun Gurton, costumes by Jill Johanseon, lighting by Matt Scott, composition and sound design by Tristan Meredith. With Colin Friels and André de Vanny. Melbourne Theatre Company, Sumner Theatre, until May 5.


John Branch said...

As usual, Ms. TN, your insights and meditations on this play and especially on Mark Rothko far surpass anything I happen to have seen about productions of Red elsewhere. A few questions occur to me, more or less in a devil's-advocate role.

One: Is there a reason why it's false for "the art [to be] contained and made significant within a personality" whereas it's proper or true for "the artist's personality [to be] absorbed in and transcended by the work"? Yes, as you say this inverts a process in Rothko's work, but is there something wrong with that in broader terms? Perhaps the highest accomplishments of art as well as of science are always impersonal; Simone Weil said something of the kind.

Two: Do you have any ideas about how Rothko and his work could be better presented? I don't mean that to sound like one of those complaints about critics, though it may have something in common with them. I'm really curious. Art about art seems like a tough challenge. How can it be done?

Alison Croggon said...

Hi John: I think that very specifically about Rothko: his works are intimate, moving, expressive in all sorts of ways, but they are a long way from expressing personality. Perhaps he was, in relationship to himself, a little like Eliot, if not so tightly buttoned about emotion: "Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things."

More generally, I do think, for what it's worth, that art on the whole aspires to a condition of anonymity.

Question two: I don't know, although there must surely be ways of talking about Rothko that could step more interestingly around the complexities of his work and life without falling into this kind of crude machismo. Art is a tough challenge in the theatre: Rothko would be one of the toughest. I have always defended the crudity of the theatre, but this was one of those instances where it seemed appropriating visual art was just a mistake. I came out wondering if this kind of thing is something theatre can't do. On the other hand, I went to see a William Kentridge restrospective here last week, and remembered an opera (The Return of Ulysses) which he directed: he's always worked in the theatre as well as a visual artist, and of course in his work those subtleties and complexities are not only possible, but gloriously realised...

John Branch said...

Thanks very much, Alison. The Eliot comparison seems very apt, especially that quotation, which I think I read in a New Yorker review of his letters.

Speaking of Eliot, I imagine you can tell me pretty specifically what he wrote about Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatists. Lazily, I haven't gone to a library to look for myself, but I have the impression that it's only in a few pieces gathered in his original Selected Essays, maybe originating in The Sacred Wood. I wrote something about one of the Jacobean plays recently and found myself wishing I had already read whatever he wrote.

Alison Croggon said...

Gad, it's been a couple of decades since I read Eliot's essays, John! I'd be a most unreliable reporter. But maybe next time I have occasion to think about the Jacobeans I'll drag them out again: I'd forgotten Eliot wrote about them. Or maybe I should just drag them out anyway...

Bridgette said...

Hi Alison,

As usual you examine the work with your full (and very admirable) armoury of theatre knowledge. I saw the play too and felt disappointed by it. For many of the reasons that you draw out here, finely. I felt that this production made much of the Four Seasons commission, and yet when he refused it, it felt empty and without meaning.

There was one moment that I truly enjoyed though, it was a bit over engineered, but the moment when they prime the canvas was thrilling if only because they had finally stopped talking - and were actually doing something.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Bridgette - thanks for your comment. I agree about the action painting sequence - a sudden moment of theatre!