“What do you see?”It’s a recurring question throughout the performance of Red in the Lyric Theatre. The plot tracks the relationship between abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko (played by Patrick O’Kane) and his new assistant Ken (Thomas Finnegan). More than that it examines the motivation, ego and insecurity of the master creator who is all too aware that his ambition and significance are being truncated by the inevitable changing of the guard as the next wave of pop art painters bite on the heels of the current big thing.
While the script has much to say about Matisse, Picasso and Pollock (of whom considerable animosity is expressed), and is dripping with artistic quotes and anecdotes at the start, John Logan’s fine play goes beyond providing a beginner’s guide to the abstract art world of the mid-twentieth century.
There’s a level of questioning that so obviously holds up a mirror to the impetus behind of whole (rarefied) world of creative and performing arts and the ways in which the public are expected to consume it.
“Not all art has to be psycho-drama”Unlike much theatre, Red doesn’t just shift between the top two gears, but gives director Emma Jordan the full range of emotion, temper and pace to work with during the ninety minute, no interval performance. The two actors are joined on stage by a continuous soundtrack for much of the play, leading to a tense battle between Rothko’s classical tastes and his assistant’s jazz.
“The point is always the tragedy”
Ken’s own tragic family backstory is conveniently introduced late on and doesn’t quite affix properly to other layers that have been daubed on the plot. At first Ken is the over-dressed dogsbody to the paint splattered Rothko. But by the final scenes, two years have passed and the tables have turned and the young artist demonstrates a learned confidence as the dress styles swap and Ken’s opinion starts to unsettle his besuited boss. Finnegan manages this transition well and complements his senior on stage partner.
The set and lighting could only be from the imaginative hand of Ciaran Bagnall. As the curtain goes up at the start, the audience realise that they are flies on one wall of the painter’s studio. Yet no matter how firmly the two actor’s stare through that wall, they never catch the eye of an audience member. The diffused light falling on the canvass ceiling creates a beautiful effect as do the never-accidental shadows.
“Without movement paintings are what? / Dead?”O’Kane and Finnegan’s focussed performance and control of energy and pace continues throughout the entire show. Choreographed scene changes carried out by cast members are now de rigueur in modern theatre – Three Sisters is a good example – but movement director Dylan Quinn has given it a sense of class and equipped the actors with motions whose scale matches the large artworks being shifted.
Red wouldn’t have been complete without a live-painting scene – though their fervent slap dash undercoating reminded me of a couple of East Belfast painters who once used a similar frenetic and messy technique on the interior walls of house.
“One day the black will swallow the red”The cast and director of this production of Red deliver performances that the incredibly ambitious script deserves. Prime Cut Productions and the Lyric Theatre’s Red runs in the Lyric until 23 April.