A pretentious artist and his naïve assistant work away in a 1950’s New York studio. John Logan’s Tony award winning piece may not sound like the most exciting subject, but don’t let that deter you. It’s a deep-dive into the creative mind with thrilling performances.
The play spans two whole years of an intense working relationship. Mark Rothko (Alfred Molina) is a celebrated artist who has been commissioned to create art for display at the new Four Seasons restaurant. He is assisted by “over-eager under-graduate” Ken (Alfred Enoch). Questioning opinions and confronting each other’s weaknesses makes for an uneasy partnership but a riveting play.
Enoch is charming as the assistant. The quirkiness of his movement and emotional openness are played expertly by someone in his West End debut. His journey from pleasing employee to sparring partner feels like it should rouse applause in the audience, his character is so likable. Whilst they do share a passion for painting (and a first name), Molina’s artist is far from his wide-eyed counterpart. Entering and monologuing on his career, the self-absorption of Rothko is abundantly clear. But what Molina brings to the role is also his fear. The current world he lives in is not the one in which he triumphed. Behind every boast and gloat, he is grappling with his present importance and the man behind the ego is revealed. It’s a stunning performance to witness.
As Rothko claims he will make the restaurant a “temple” for his work, that’s what the stage imagines. The centrepiece of every scene being a large canvas to focus on. Michael Grandage’s production harnesses the intensity with gorgeous lighting design from Neil Austin. Splattered with red paint and prominent shadows, the set looks the most ominous near the end but minimal light changes throughout complement the action of the scenes.
The only potential turn-off in this play is the dialogue, it’s culturally specific and deep. The writing explores what colours mean to people, experiences influencing opinion, Rembrandt, Picasso, Pollock… the list goes on. But what’s underneath the dialogue couldn’t be more universal; simply two people trying to understand each other. There are touching moments of emotional release where layers are stripped back and the actual people appear.
Reviewer: Coral Mourant
Reviewed: 30th November 2020
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★