Art and literature have a symbiotic relationship; they not only coexist within specific cultural movements but also influence each other. My fascination in this relationship encouraged me to study both English and History of Art in a joint honours course and also give Red by John Logan a mention in my Personal Statement for UCAS.
John Logan’s play epitomises the relationship between art and literature as it is a Russian doll of cultural references. Red is a play which looks into the life of Mark Rothko who muses on the rise of Pop Art and evaluates the significance of various canonical artists such as Caravaggio, Matisse and Pollock. Logan jam-packs his play with intertextual references which give us an insight to Rothko’s opinions on art.
After seeing advertising for John Logan’s Red on the underground I immediately bought tickets to see the theatre production. It was performed at Wyndham’s Theatre and directed by Michael Grandage with Alfred Enoch and Alfred Molina as the only two actors.
At this theatre, I had previously seen Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge which had a set design that was diametrically opposed to the set design of Red. Whilst A View from the Bridge was minimalistic and not naturalistic, Christopher Oram’s set design for Red was very small and realistic. I found it interesting that this space could be completely transformed to give the audiences very different experiences. The set design of Red created an intimate feel which made me feel like I was in conversation with Rothko or a passive employee in his studio. It also created a sense of verisimilitude which was accentuated by the lighting.
Neil Austin did a superb job with the lighting as he enabled the characters to actively engage with the effects by dimming the lighting and turning it on and off. The dim feel to the set was akin to the ambiance of a chapel; this was very fitting as the character of Rothko wanted “to create a place… A place where the viewer could live in contemplation with the work and give it some of the same attention and care [he] gave it. Like a chapel… A place of communion.” As a result, the audience was able to contemplate the paintings in the background just as Rothko intended. Furthermore, Austin made the paintings appear to glow and pulsate which made them look like living creatures; he literally “let[s] the luminescence emerge”, just the effect Rothko tried to achieve. In my opinion, this was especially successful as it made the replica paintings look more alive, active and interesting to look at than the display of Rothko’s authentic paintings in the Tate Modern. This metaphor of the paintings being alive was made even more prominent by the character of Rothko speaking to the paintings, asking “Do you think they’ll ever forgive me?”. The most genius aspect of lighting used metatheatre to draw attention to the fact that we were watching a play. This occurred when the fictional assistant, Ken, realised that he keeps the lights so low “To help the illusion. Like a magician. Like a play. To keep it mysterious, to let the pictures pulsate. Turn on bright lights and the stage effect is ruined – suddenly it’s nothing but a bare stage with a bunch of fake walls”. Simultaneously, Ken turned off the dim lighting and turned on the stage lights; in this moment, the believability was shattered and we remembered that we were not in Rothko’s studio but in a place very far away from him in time and place.
When looking in retrospect we are able to understand Rothko’s opinions and their existence within cultural environment of the 1950s. However, we are also able to extract the musings that Rothko provides and apply them to today’s world; they are timeless and transferable. Not only did the character of Rothko instruct his assistant on how to look at his paintings but, also, Logan helped us to understand Rothko’s paintings. However, we are frequently told that Rothko is not a teacher but an employer. As a result, Ken and us alike are able to challenge what he says and form our own opinions. The more Ken questions and challenges Rothko, the more we do too. Once ken forms his own opinion, it becomes “the first time [he’s] existed”. Furthermore, we too can grow into existence
by forming our own opinions. This play is a great way to educate any novice on how to look at, appreciate, and form opinions on art. In the opinion of Paul Taylor of the Independent, Red is a “flawed play; phenomenal production”. In some ways I agree, the play overwhelms you with the number of musings to take in. Your brain isn’t allowed to rest, however, the mise-en-scene assists. You get lost in the dialogue but the paintings bring you back to the point.
Featured image – Red on Maroon, 1959, Mark Rothko. Courtesy of www.tate.org.uk
Written by Manisha Bhogal