Life, etc

Seeing Red in living colour

By Lesley Stones 23 July 2012

Red is a fascinating, emotionally charged and sometimes satirical play that opens up the world of artist Mark Rothko – giving voice to some of the ideas that may have got lost in the artist’s belief that “silence is so accurate”. It may be a highly coloured version of Rothko’s life, but it’s definitely vivid. LESLEY STONES reviews.

Watching a play about a world far from your own is arguably one of the most rewarding theatre experiences, and one that I had seeing Red – a play about American artist Mark Rothko, which follows him as he works in his studio in the 1950s on a series of murals for a restaurant. 

We arrive in his blustering world at the same time as Ken, a student artist who has landed a job as the opinionated older man’s assistant. 

Ken leads us into this world asking the questions the audience itself might ask – but which we probably would not dare to if we met the artist ourselves. “Are these ones done?” he says, as he eyes Rothko’s collection of abstract expressionist paintings.

Veteran actor Michael Richard revels in the role of the temperamental – but certainly not starving – artist, swooping across the stage with perfect mastery of his character. “Go on, I’m fascinated by me,” he says, when Ken dares to express an opinion about his work.

The programme notes for this play by John Logan tell us that Rothko never explained the meaning of his works in case that limited the viewer’s imagination, saying instead, “silence is so accurate.” Yet Logan’s script paints him as a man who rarely shut up, and most of the play has Richard filling the stage as he rants and raves with artistic passion or fury. 

He’s a narcissist, too, adoring his own voice, admiring his own thoughts, and soaking up what scant praise Ken proffers. 

There’s a lot of pomposity in the art world, and at times I’m wondering if this philosophical sparring is just that – spouting words for the sake of it, showing off how erudite you are, how well-read and how well-versed in art, culture, music, literature, religion, philosophy, mythology and a dozen other ‘ologies’ that broaden the mind and convolute the vocabulary. 

There’s a lovely satirical scene, too, where Rothko ridicules the very people who buy his art, dismissing them as social climbers who need to own a Rothko because their neighbours have one, but want it in orange to match the décor. They can’t bear to look at it because it’s too depressing, he mocks, but at least it’s small enough to hang over the mantelpiece.

Ken (Jeremy Richard) is also a nuanced and complex character, and gradually opens up to tell Rothko about the murder of his parents. The actor does it with just the right degree of emotional understatement, letting his expression and the tragic facts speak for themselves.

Later, Ken stands up and defiantly turns the pompous words of the older man against him. They’ve been together for two years, and Ken has seen through all the bluff and bluster.

The stage set by Greg King is a fascinating recreation of an artist’s studio, giving us insight into the paint bubbling on the stove and powders waiting to be mixed. There’s a glorious scene where the two men prime a canvas, their brushes sweeping paint out of buckets in a few frenzied minutes of activity.

For all that Rothko hates art critics, he follows in their wake, dismissing artists who just paint “pretty pictures” and ranting about the next generation who make his abstract expressionism look outmoded. There is no right and wrong view, of course, since art, like theatre – appeals in different ways to different viewers. There are plenty of thought-provoking ideas, lots of humour and brilliant performances from both actors. Red is a stimulating play that will appeal to lovers of intellectual, challenging theatre. DM

Red runs at Sandton’s Old Mutual Theatre on the Square until August 11. Article courtesy of



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