The play opens in a smouldering silence. The setting is a bleak studio, with high brick walls, and massive paintings a figure with his back to us is staring intently at a painting. "What do you see?" he asks. This question recurs throughout the play expressing anger, despair, hope, and incredulity.
We learn that the play is set in New York in the 1950s. Ken (played by Tom Barton) has been hired by Rothko (1903-1970), who is working on a series of paintings for the new Four Seasons restaurant.
Colin Friels as Mark Rothco in Red. Image from QTC Facebook page.
Although Rothko (played by Colin Friels) insists that he is not Ken's mentor or teacher, and keeps his distance from him not interested in where he lives, what he paints, whether or not he is married. Yet a Socratic interchange of ideas takes place, starting as a monologue from Rothko interspersed with challenges from Ken, who represents a new generation of painters about to challenge Rothko's style and pre-eminence.
Yes, the two work together, epitomised by a frenzied canvas painting scene, where the two men create a massive rectangle of red. But they spar as well. Ken challenges Rothko as to how his high doctrine of art can allow him to hang paintings in a temple of mammon, the Four Seasons restaurant.
Rothka is unashamedly egotistical "This space" he insists, " is all about me." He almost totally lacks irony about his absorption with his art. No post-modernist relativity for him. Art and immortality beckon, and he follows, torn between fear and hubris.
Through the intense attention to the moment of creation, the artist reaches towards the Platonic archtype of perfection, only to have it evade him, again and again. "What do you see?"
As Rothka says in his essay, The Romantics Were Prompted, "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 ."
Eventually Rothko paints 30 canvases, but when he finally visits the restaurant he considers rejecting the commission and sending 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!"
This play attempts to make us understand how he arrives at his decision. At worst it seems like self-serving rant, an irony-free zone, where Rothko becomes Woody Allen without the humour. At best it shows the artist driven to embody a vision a secular high priest conveying as best he can what it is that he is seeing. Both actors more than do justice to their demanding roles, the ageing enfant terrible struggling to remain dominant in his world, and the newcomer seeing all, and challenging his master.
The play left the audience with the challenge "What do you see?"
Queensland Thatre Company's Red is playing at QPAC from 27 April to 19 May 2013.