It was gripping theater, this play about Mark Rothko and his decision to pull out of the prestigious commission of muralling the fancy Four Seasons restaurant. Plenty of art talk, between Rothko, played by a tremendous Alfred Molina, and his studio assistant Ken, the young Eddie Redmayne who more than held his own against the older actor. But the art talk was so impassioned and so well-written that one was convinced, no, convicted, that art mattered to these men more than anything else in their lives. If red represented to Rothko life and passion, black symbolized death. But this obvious symbolism was challenged by his assistant, and Rothko revealed his actual fear, to be measured and found wanting.
If I have a quibble, it is that the character of Rothko could have been delineated more individually. At some points in the play, Rothko spoke as the Artist and little else. Ken, on the other hand, remained painfully and awkwardly human throughout. Redmayne brought out the vulnerability and strength of the young aspiring artist.
Director Michael Grandage kept the excitement level high. Lighting was used cunningly to illuminate stage and paintings. Rothko's paintings are vulnerable to bright natural light. At one point full lights were thrown, and both the painting and studio became nothing more than canvas and stage, denuded of their illusion of mystery. Most beautiful was the silent passage when Rothko and Ken covered a canvas with red backwash. Their movements were choreographed into muscular dance.
The production came over from the Donmar Warehouse, London.