Red at the Wyndham’s Theatre review *****

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Red

Wyndham’s Theatre, 21st June 2018

The original production of John Logan’s play Red at the Donmar Warehouse in 2009 with Alfred Molina and Eddie Redmayne passed me by. More fool me. So I was looking forward to catching this revival directed by Michael Grandage, (who directed the original), with Alfred Enoch now playing fictional assistant Ken alongside Alfred Molina once again as Mark Rothko. It went directly to Broadway after the Donmar, and has popped up over 30 locations since, but this was the first revival in the UK.

Red isn’t a complicated set up. Ken pitches up to “interview” for the job. Rothko takes a shine to him. Their relationship develops. It is really just a device to explore the nature of art and artists in general, as well as specific, terms. Rothko wasn’t a jolly chap by all accounts but he thought long and hard, perhaps a little too long and hard, about what he did. The play focusses on the months in 1959 when Rothko had taken on the commission to create a series of panels, like a Renaissance great, to hang in the restaurant of the Four Season hotel in the Seagram building in New York, a commission he eventually refused to complete.

I have been fortunate/unfortunate enough to eat a couple of times in the restaurant. It is a cathedral to late C20 neo-liberal capitalism. It doesn’t need any paintings. It is certainly not a place for quiet contemplation. Apparently Rothko was partly inspired by the vestibule of Michelangelo’s Laurentian Library in Florence on a visit to Europe in 1959, another “f*ck you” little people, we’re the elite” OTT mausoleum. Apparently on an earlier trip in 1950 he was bowled over by Fra Angelico’s supreme frescoes at San Marco. I know which I prefer.

The set from Michael Grandage’s regular collaborator, Christopher Oram, complemented by the masterly lighting of Neil Austin, is a triumph. It imagines the studio in the Bowery where Rothko created the Seagram murals with representations of some of the 40 or so canvases/studies that Rothko created, three different series, in dark reds and browns, to meet the commission. We are afforded an insight into Rothko’s materials and (secret) process; in one marvellous scene we see real physicality as Molina and Enoch prepare a canvas with a wash. The activity provides a counterfoil to the initially one-sided, but increasingly argumentative, as Ken’s confidence grows, dialogue examining Rothko’s own frustrations with the Seagram commission itself and with the reaction of society to his own art.

Rothko was born Markus Yakovlevich Rothkowitz in 1903 in Latvia of Russian-jewish descent and came to America with his family in 1913. His father died shortly afterwards and Rothko questioned his religion. He was brought up in Portland, Oregon and initially set out to be a union organiser given his strong socialist beliefs. Fiercely intelligent, he gained a scholarship to Yale but dropped out, moved to New York and became an artist and enrolled at a design school where he was taught by Arshile Gorky and Max Weber. Initially he was influenced by German Expressionism, turning out some well regarded early work, though needing to teach at the Brooklyn Jewish to supplement his income. In the early 1930’s he entered a circle of artists, (including Alfred Gottlieb and Barnett Newman), who surrounded Milton Avery and took trips to paint in Massachusetts. In 1934 he had his first solo show which revealed his skill with deep colour, founded a movement called The Ten, exhibited in Paris and New York and worked with the Works Progress Administration alongside the likes of Pollock and de Kooning.

Rothko’s singular way with colour was emerging in his figurative work but he also experimented with surrealism and paintings drawn from mythology. The influence of Europe was still strong even as the modernists in the US took aim against the specifically “American” art of the inter war years.  He separated from wife Edith for a short period in 1937 and took up US citizenship in 1938 and changed his name, fearing the wave of anti semitism might lead to deportation.

Rothko’s tireless search for an intellectual, cultural and philosophical framework for his art eventually led him to that other tormented soul Nietzsche, notably the Birth of Tragedy, which spurred a series of works drawn from Classical and Judaeo-Christian mythology. Following a less than successful exhibition at Macy’s department store in 1942 Rothko penned the following which about sums up the direction he was about to take. “We favor the simple expression of the complex thought. We are for the large shape because it has the impact of the unequivocal. We wish to reassert the picture plane. We are for flat forms because they destroy illusion and reveal truth.”

After separating from his wife again and a period of depression Rothko went to California and struck up a friendship with Clyfford Still who would become a clear influence on his work. I have a deep suspicion of much US Abstract Expressionism but Clyfford Still’s monumental slabs of bright colour, punctuated by jagged lines, and drawn from the landscape of his native North Dakota, are arresting and extremely beautiful. A return to New York, and another not entirely successful exhibition at the Guggenheim, saw Rothko move closer to pure abstraction which properly appeared from 1946 in the so called “multiform” paintings; blocks of colour devoid of human form, landscape or symbol. More essays, an obsession with Henri Matisse’s Red Studio and finally, in 1949, an exhibition of works which defined the Rothko style from there on in,  and now a cornerstone of modern Western art. The two or three blocks of complementary, coalescing, contrasting colours flickering and shifting with the light, though initially the tones were often quite bright; greens, blues alongside yellows and oranges.

Rothko’s popularity, and the value of his work, spiralled but he became increasingly protective of his art, and one might argue, overly grandiose in his claims for it. He asked viewers to examine the works from up close to intensify the “spiritual experience”. The colours got darker maybe mirroring the increasing darkness in the artist’s own pysche Cliche or not Rothko certainly walked the talk of the tortured artist, as did Pollock in his own way. His politics left him uneasy with the trappings of commercial success (Fortune magazine singled out his work for “investment), though he still reportedly liked the money. He got lumped in with his Abstract Expressionist peers, much to his chagrin, fell out with Barnett Newman and Clyfford Still, who accused him of being a sell out, went through loads of assistants and became a father with second wife Mell. As his fame grew so did his alienation. Here was an artist who might have been happier to work in cloistered obscurity. Or would he?

That is were Red the play picks up the story. Now if I tell you that vast swathes of the potted bio above are referenced in the play, largely by Rothko himself, you will probably realise that you are in for a bit of a lecture here. However, by having Rothko pour it all out to Ken, himself an aspiring artist, though he never plucks up the courage to show his work to Rothko, it doesn’t feel ponderously didactic. It probably helps if you have a rough idea of what Rothko was about, and a smattering of art history, but it is by no means essential. the play stands as terrific entertainment even without that.

Which frankly in large part is down to Alfred Molina’s amazing performance. He just is Mark Rothko. I say this secure in the knowledge that I have no idea what Mr Rothko was like but, thanks to the illusion of theatre, I, and I would be willing to guess all the audiences that have seen this, believe that this is Rothko. Which means all of the references to his own life and art, to the history of art and to the relationship between art, society and economy, fall naturally out of the discussions with Ken. Above all you accept that MR didn’t go in for small talk, (which reminds me there is no little humour on show to leaven proceedings), and, for all his intellectual certainty there was something something lacking emotionally. in the man. An intellectual prize fighter, spoiling for a fight, but desperate for attention. Apollo and Dionysius. Which explains why he lets Ken stick around for a bit.

Rothko went on to even greater fame after pulling the plug on the Seagram murals, (some of which now hang in the special room at the centre of Tate Modern). Other mural projects followed culminating in the slightly preposterous conceit of the Rothko Chapel in Texas. However he was overtaken by Pop Art in the 1960’s, a movement he despised, but which is, in the play, championed by Ken.

A heart condition, fags, booze, bad diet, separation from second wife, smaller paintings and a Marat style suicide and an argument over his estate. There is probably another play here. 836 paintings, spread around public and private collections, including in his Latvian birthplace, books, posters, postcards, snapchats, there are few artists whose work is so well known. I always want to sneer and walk away whenever I see a late Rothko, (I haven’t seen enough of his earlier incarnations to make a judgment), but I never can. They cast a spell and, cliche alert again, invite contemplation. Such is the power of colour, paint, form and tone and Rothko’s special technique.

The play lasts just 90 minutes yet the Wyndham’s and MGC folk are asking you to shelve out full West End prices. Is this good value? I’ll leave you to decide but it is a superb play and better than most anything else in the West End right now. A Russian oligarch paid near US$ 200m for a 1951 Rothko painting a few years back. Presumably he thought he got value for money. Mind you he is the same fellow he recently sold the ropey Leonardo for US$ 450m and appears to have been conned by his dealer. Look him up. Quite a character.

Translations at the National Theatre review ****

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Translations

National Theatre Olivier, 6th June 2018

At the end of the day it is all about the words. That’s theatre. The power of language. Which is exactly what Brian Friel’s play is all about. A modern classic, first seen in 1980, in Derry (with Stephen Rea, Liam Neeson and Ray McAnally no less in the cast), to set alongside Philadelphia Here I Come, Aristocrats, Faith Healer, Dancing at Lughnasa and The Home Place, as masterpieces from his hand. All set in the fictional town of Baie Beag (Ballybeg). All exploring the particularities of Irish history, society and culture but all offering up universal insight. The Irish Chekhov as some would, with very good reason, have it.

So I wasn’t going to pass this up and I was going to insist the SO attend. I have no truck with those currently giving Rufus Norris and the NT a kicking. There have been some absolute belters over the last couple of years which more than compensate for a couple of missteps, so you haters can STFU. Anyway this is a marvellous productions. Rae Smith has conjured up another evocative, organic, set, the “hedge” school in which the play is set is foregrounded, leaving the rest of the Oliver stage as moorland which stretches to a backdrop of rolling mist and clouds. It is 1833 in Ballybeg and embittered Manus, (superbly played by Seamus O”Hara), lame in one leg, is setting up the school run by his father Hugh. He is joined by the voluble Jimmy Jack Cassie whose shambling manner and fondness for a tipple belies his classical education. He and Hugh are equally at home in Latin and Greek as their native Gaelic. Dermot Crowley and Ciaran Hinds offer up a par of towering performances. The hedge schools which were the source of their learning are about to be replaced by a free national school system. Sarah movingly played by Michelle Fox, whose speech is impaired, is joined by Maire (Judith Roddy who was also marvellous in the recent Donmar Knives in Hens), Doalty (Lawrence Kinlan) and Bridget (Aoife Duffin) in the school.

Through their interchanges we quickly become immersed in their domestic worlds, lives that may lack material plenty but are rich in many other ways. The Great Famine is still a decade away but the threat from potato blight is addressed. Translations is not an overtly political play, Brian Friel determined to avoid that commenting  that “the play has to do with language and only language … and if it becomes overwhelmed by that political element, it is lost”. However when Hugh’s other, prodigal, son, Owen, returns after a several year absence, the clash of culture between British coloniser and Irish colonised, is revealed. Owen (Colin Morgan, TV’s Merlin) has returned with two English soldiers, the ruthless and patronising cartographer Captain Lancey (accurately represented by Rufus Wright) and the more sympathetic orthographer Lieutenant Yolland (Adetomiwa Edun). Owen is a translator: the soldiers have been tasked with renaming the Irish place names into English. This was initially it seems a virtuous undertaking but the metaphor is clear and, eventually, as you might guess, the army seeks retribution when one of their number goes missing.

Now Mr Friel’s brilliant central conceit is to have both the English and Irish characters speaking in English. The two English officers speak no Gaelic, though Yolland as he falls in love with both country and Maire, tries to learn. Owen, initially misnamed Roland by the officers, picks his way carefully through his translations. And, it transpires, that a number of the Irish contingent know a great deal more English that they are letting on.

Hopefully my brief description should persuade you just how elegantly, and cleverly, constructed Mr Friel’s play is. But it doesn’t stop there. In scene after scene and line after line, he patiently, but insistently, drives his points home. Even so these characters are no mere ciphers; there is plenty of emotion too. The love scene, ostensibly in two different languages, between Maire and Yolland, is very affecting, Sarah’s yearning for Manus which echoes it, Manus’s flight when he realises there is nothing left for him in Ballybeg,, Hugh’s demons fuelled by drink, Owen’s cultural ambivalence; everyone has a story to tell, and not just in words.

Ian Rickson is as sure-footed in his direction of the marvellous cast as you could wish for though there are moments of over-deliberation. Neil Austin’s lighting, Ian Dickinson’s sound design and the music of Stephen Warbeck all stand out,  and a big hurrah for the voice work of Charmian Hoare and Jeanette Nelson and to dialect coach Majella Hurley, this being a play about language.

 

 

 

Albion at the Almeida Theatre review ****

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Albion

Almeida Theatre, 21st October 2017

Now we all know Mike Bartlett is a great writer. If you don’t know his stage work then, if you love your telly in the UK, you will likely have come across his mini-series Doctor Foster. So you will know that he can write a totally gripping story and that he is not averse in taking liberties with plot construction in order to generate a few outrageous WTF moments. Now it helps that this series was blessed with some top-drawer acting talent in Suranne Jones, (up next in a revival of Frozen alongside Jason Watkins and Nina Sosanya at Theatre Royal Haymarket in what looks like casting made in heaven), the chameleonic Bertie Carvel (I would watch anything he does), Adam James (ditto and who is a Mike Bartlett veteran) and the gifted Victoria Hamilton.

And it is Ms Hamilton who takes the leading role of Audrey Walters in Albion. She is, quite simply, brilliant. I will get to the play shortly but just let me wax lyrical about Victoria Hamilton for a bit. Her Audrey is sharp, snappy, curt, brusque, tactless. A seemingly detached mother. A wife who takes her (second) husband for granted. A friend who has no interest in the life of her oldest chum. An alpha businesswoman. Yet she is also very funny, and, as we increasingly find out, vulnerable. At the heart of Mr Bartlett’s rich text it seems that Audrey, in all her contradiction, is all of us, or more specifically, is this country, whatever it might be. I guess the clue was always in the title but Albion is an allegory which takes a substantial domestic family drama as the mechanism to explore issues of national identity, place and heritage. The Brexit convulsions ooze out of the very earth, of which there is plenty on stage, though the accursed word is never mentioned.

It is a bloody marvellous role and an equally marvellous performance. You may have seen Ms Hamilton in other roles on the telly, maybe in costume dramas and the like, and I envy you if you have seen her on the stage, for she is an infrequent board-treader. Her stage reputation is immense though. I can now see why. I have no right to ask, as someone who sits around on his lardy arse most days, but PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE Victoria, come back to the stage soon when this one is over. Mind you if this doesn’t get a West End transfer, I’ll be gobsmacked (though I can see some logistical challenges).

Panegyric over. What about the play? Our Audrey has left her successful “home-stuff” business in the hands of the minions. She has bought a pile she knew from childhood in rural Oxfordshire. and left London behind. It is the garden that matters to her though. It had been created by a certain Mr Weatherbury and was of immense national importance. It has gone to rack and ruin. Audrey wants to sink some of cash into restoring it to its former glory (see where we are going ….), and create a memorial to the dead of the Great War, and, we quickly learn, her son James, who was pointlessly killed in one of the recent wars. With her come her browbeaten, though wryly optimistic, husband Paul (a spot on Nicholas Rowe) and self-absorbed, millenial daughter Zara (an anxious Charlotte Hope) who wants to write and would rather be in London. Audrey inherits a couple of retainers in husband/gardener and wife/housekeeper Matthew (Christopher Fairbank, hard to imagine anyone else better suited to the part) and Cheryl (Margot Leicester, who shows perfect comic timing) but they are getting on a bit so Audrey, somewhat tactlessly, recruits ambitious Polish cleaning entrepreneur Krystyna (Edyta Budnik), and the rather enigmatic local boy Gabriel (a compelling Luke Thallon) to help . Our cast is completed by Anna (Vinette Robinson, who convinces in what is a tricky role), who is James’s grieving girlfriend, Katherine Sanchez (Helen Schlesinger), very successful writer, best friend of Audrey since university and overt “remainer”, and conservative neighbour, Edward (Nigel Betts).

No commentary on what happens next. I insist you see for yourself. There are though some moments of very high drama as the tensions between the characters unfold. Some of these scenes push us to the edge of credulity but, as with Mr Bartlett’s other work, he gets away with it because it is so damnably thrilling. 

Rupert Goold’s direction doesn’t stand in the way of any of this, indeed positively encourages it, and it gives his lighting (Neil Austin), sound (Gregory Clarke) and movement (Rebecca Frecknall) colleagues room to have some real fun. All the action is set in the red garden “room” of Weatherbury’s original design. Miriam Buether’s “thrust” forward design is a cracker. A raised oval lawn with trusty oak tree and seat at the back and with a bed all around which is transformed halfway through. This England indeed. 

If the set up above sounds like a certain Mr Anton Chekhov you’d be right. It unashamedly has Cherry Orchard crawling all over it, and, greedy bugger that he is, he even takes a few feathers out of The Seagull. Why not though? Chekhov being the perfect template for showcasing the intersection of the personal and the political, the delineation of class, the weight of history and the vice of nostalgia. The garden itself is a quintessential metaphor for change. We English have always been good at gardens and don’t we just love ’em. Chekhov meshes comedy, tragedy and banality whilst hurling in a few bombshells. Mr Bartlett does the same.

Into this set-up then is layered a whole series of perspectives of what “we”, have been, are now, and, possibly, are going to be, now “we” have taken this unprecedented step. The short answer, if you were to ask me, is that “we” have been monumentally stupid. Mr Bartlett, as you might expect, is rather less dogmatic, and offers ambiguity (and indeed his greatest nod to Chekhov), at the end. He reminds us that even dear old Blighty is regularly convulsed by clashes between those who welcome the future, and those who cling to the past. Because, in some way or other, we all embrace this dichotomy.

The text swirls with meaning. Perhaps a little too much. This is what holds me back from a full-on JFG 5* review. Direction, staging, performances – all tip top. Garden as metaphor, check. Chekhov as inspiration, check. Formal structure, check. Narrative arc, check. Plot and characters, check. Ideas and meaning, a qualified check. Not the subject, no way, nothing right now more important could appear on a London stage. Just that maybe a few of the threads can could have been pulled a little more tightly together.

Minor criticism. This is still a hefty slab of theatre which captures the zeitgeist. Maybe not quite as immediately remarkable as the last combination of Mike Bartlett and Rupert Goold at this very venue, King Charles III. But it may well turn out to have even greater resonance as, brace yourselves, the impact of this Brexit caper has only just begun.