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.

Frozen at the Theatre Royal Haymarket review ****

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Frozen

Theatre Royal Haymarket, 8th March 2018

I see the Theatre Royal Haymarket is up for sale. Or rather a 70 year odd lease from the Crown Estate, a pernickety landlord, but one who has preserved the beautiful Nash terraces around Regents Park, and is slowing upgrading the built environment along Regent Street which looks a lot less sh*tty than it did 30 years ago.

I would love to buy it but I guess 20 quid won’t cut it. I assume that one of the big West End theatre companies, ATG, NIMAX or Delfont Mackintosh, will get its hands on it. I hope the new owners don’t tamper with the repertoire too much though I guess the family wouldn’t be selling up if they were minting it. A London home for that part of the RSC’s output which doesn’t get taken to the Barbican, and an opportunity for established directors and big name actors to tackle slightly more challenging work. Like Albee’s Goat last year (The Goat, or Who is Sylvia at the Theatre Royal Haymarket review *****), the less successful revival of Venus in Fur and now Bryony Lavery’s challenging Frozen. In years gone by we’ve had some Bond, Beckett, Shakespeare and Stoppard. Looking forward we have the Maly Drama Theatre of St Petersburg bowling up in all their splendour and a French/English Tartuffe.

TRH, along with the Harold Pinter Theatre just round the corner, (ATG, and hosting the transfer of the the NT production of Nina Raine’s Consent from 18th May with a new cast), the Wyndham’s (Delfont Mackintosh) and the Garrick (NIMAX) at the bottom of Charing Cross Road, as well as the Duke of York’s (ATG) and Noel Coward (Delfont Mackintosh) next door on St Martin’s Lane, are pretty much all you need in term of “proper” theatre in the West End, including most successful transfers from the subsidised sector. Maybe the Playhouse (ATG) and the Gielgud (Delfont Mackintosh) as well.

The Grade 1 listed Regency TRH though is my favourite. The stuccoed front elevation looks like the real deal with its beautiful portico with six elegant Corinthian columns. The theatre was designed by none other than John Nash and dates from 1821 having replaced the previous incumbent which was built in 1720. It acquired its royal patent in 1776 joining its namesake in Drury Lane and the Royal Opera House. We were lucky enough to see Ian Kelly’s Mr Foote’s Other Leg with Simon Russell Beale in 2015, at the Hampstead Theatre, not here, which tells the fascinating story of the TRH’s founding.

The bars in the TRH don’t look like an afterthought, loos are adequate and legroom is very good throughout. The Tourist has found plenty of lovely seats, from the 900 or so total, to suit his needs here, something he can’t necessarily say about the other theatres mentioned above. Outside of the balcony, the seats are comfy and in everything bar the very back of the stalls, and one or two by the wall in the dress circle, sight-lines are very good. The space is airy enough to accommodate the gold-leaf plastered on every surface of the beautifully maintained neo-classical interior, and the blue upholstery creates a much more balanced aesthetic when compared to bog-standard red.

So any theatre buyers reading this, by which I mean buyers of theatres, not tickets, I would snap up the TRH, however onerous the lease clauses.

What about Frozen I hear you ask. I will resist the urge to make the customary joke about kids getting a little bit confused by the absence of Queen Else belting out Let It Go. For Frozen, as I am sure you know, deals with a serial killer, Ralph played by Jason Watkins ,who sexually assaults and murders Rhona, the 10 year old daughter of Nancy, played here by Suranne Jones. Our speaking cast is completed by Nina Sosanya who plays Agnetha, the American psychiatrist who studies the case. The play essentially asks whether those who commit such crimes are born “evil” and whether they can, in any way, be forgiven.

So it is strong stuff and director Jonathan Munby and designer Paul Wills don’t pull any punches. Ms Lavery’s play was lauded when it first appeared in 1998 at the Birmingham Rep and garnered awards at the NT in 2002 and on Broadway in 2004. It hasn’t popped up again in London, perhaps not a surprise given the sIt is very well researched and emotionally powerful as you would expect though it does come over as a little calculated, with the Agnetha character slightly forced. When it is good though, it is very, very good. It is constructed initially from short monologues, later moving to dialogue between Agnetha and Ralph as she studies him, a meeting between Agnetha and Nancy and finally a meeting in prison between Nancy and Ralph himself where she offers forgiveness.

None of this would work if the audience were not totally convinced by Ralph. It probably isn’t any surprise that Jason Watkins delivered. I don’t mean to suggest that this will have been an easy role for him to inhabit, just that his TV performance as the teacher Christopher Jeffries who was wrongly accused of murder, suggested to me that his technique might prove suited. I was not however prepared for just how good he is in this. With his flattened West Midlands vowels, his false pride in his “logistical” skills, his pedantic explanation of events and his extreme temper he seemed to me to be the embodiment of the “banality of evil”. He is chilling, yes, undeniably odd, but also believably humdrum and, on the surface, quite affable. Detail after detail, his description of the van he uses to abduct his victims, the way he engages them in conversation, the appalling scene where he is displaying his paedophile videotapes, the explosions of anger in prison, leave the audience revulsed, of course, but compelled to watch more.

It is hard for Suranne Jones to match this. The play probably works better in a much smaller space. Director, and the design team, understandably want to fill the TRH stage, conjuring up projections of brain scans, assorted “frozen” images, ghostly images of Rhonda, and the like, wheeling props on and off with each scene change, as well as some unsubtle soundscapes. This all proves a little too bold I think, and Ms Jones has the most difficulty in projecting the incomprehension and grief that consumes Nancy for over twenty years, out into the audience. It is a bit easier for Nina Sosanya to highlight Agnetha’s contention that Ralph’s behaviour reflects his damaged neurological make-up, given much of this is delivered in the form of imagined scientific lectures. She also has some opportunity to show lighter moments, though we learn later on that she too is grieving over her own loss.

So no doubt this is a very good play, sympathetically delivered by a fine trio of actors. The direction might be a little heavy handed, and the space a little cavernous for what is an intense, episodic chamber piece, but it is well worth seeing. Particularly if you snap up some of the cheaper seats on the day. Just make sure everyone in your party is up to speed on the content.

 

Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle at Wyndham’s Theatre review ****

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Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle

Wyndham’s Theatre, 9th November 2017

Everyone’s at it. The “science” play. Science, whether directly through using theory to inform plot, or indirectly, often through the impact of ecological or other catastrophe, has underpinned many of the best new plays I have seen in the last couple of years. Steff Smiths’s Human Animals, Nick Payne’s Constellations and Elegy, The Forbidden Zone from Schaubuhne Berlin, Caryl Churchill’s Escaped Alone, Lucy Kirkwood’s The Children and Mosquitoes and Christopher Shinn’s Against all have a healthy dose of science in the mix.

Mind you this is nothing new. The brainy playwrights have been at it for decades. Think of Stoppard’s The Hard Problem, even Brecht’s Life of Galileo, the mighty Caryl Churchill’s A Number and Love and Information. Lucy Prebble’s The Effect, Timberlake Wertenbaker’s After Darwin. Indeed Michael Frayn in Copenhagen even took Werner Heisenberg himself as the subject for his play. Nor is it really surprising given the importance of mathematics and physics to our lives. After all it is the role of theatre to comment on, engage with and maybe even influence the big ideas that underpin our world. But it does take a fierce intellect to make this sciencey stuff work.

It was probably only a matter of time before the prolific, eclectic and clever Simon Stephens came up with his own variation. Like Lucy Kirkwood in Mosquitoes he takes a big idea from theoretical physics to create a metaphor for the actions of his characters, though I am not sure he is as successful. Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle states that if we measure the position of a particle with ever greater precision, then at some point we have to accept a correspondingly increasing imprecision in our measurement of the particle’s momentum. (Thank you Wiki and the programme – I would be lost without you). When we look at the little stuff, like electrons, its behaviour sometimes emulates a particle bouncing around but sometimes it is like a wave. Apparently “vagueness” is built into nature at the quantum scale. Yet we humans are always deluding ourselves that we have control and that there is order around us. We live at a larger scale than the quantum so see the physical world obey laws and we can trust the effect of statistical averaging.

Allied to the Uncertainty Principle is the idea of the observer effect. The act of observing will influence the phenomenon being observed. At the quantum scale for us to “see” and electron, a photon apparently must interact with it, thus changing the path of the electron. You can see why this concept might appeal to the inventive playwright. 

(I will refrain from opening up to the idea that some neuroscience even suggests our concept of “free will” is an illusion. “Free won’t” maybe, but the electrical activity in or brains that prompts an action seems to come before our “conscious” realisation of the intended action. Get your head round that). 

Anyway this randomness is the idea Mr Stephens builds into his play. Unpredictability is built into our lives. When forty something garrulous, and dissatisfied, American expat Georgie Burns (Anne-Marie Duff) randomly kisses, on the back of the neck, mid seventies lonely butcher Alex Priest (Kenneth Cranham) on a bench in St Pancras station, no-one, least of all them, could have predicted where this would lead. As it happens it leads to a beautifully observed affair which brings happiness and lashings of extra life to both

Now I guess that, at the end of the day, you might be able to take any other boy meets girl (or boy meets boy, or girl meets girl, or other feasible combinations) stage double hander and overlay the same idea. Nick Payne’s Constellations covered similar territory albeit with a very different formal structure. Indeed if you jettisoned old Heisenberg and just took the play on its own merits you wouldn’t lose much. You would ask yourself why would Georgie ever approach Alex in the first place, but might soon be persuaded as to why, and indeed would be offered some alternative explanations. The question of the age gap would loom large but fairly soon be dismissed, as it should be. Some of the twists in the romance might seem a little contrived but then you could say the same about all romances, real or imagined.

That the play works independent of its big ideas is down to the performances, and to a lesser extent, the sure direction of Marianne Elliot, the much praised set of Bunny Christie and the lighting of Paule Constable. In Anne-Marie Duff and Kenneth Cranham we have here two actors at the top of their game. In fact they are so at the top of their game that they are both banging in hat-tricks on a weekly basis like the love-child of Harry Kane and Cristiano Ronaldo. Ms Duff is always better than the play she leads, even when the play itself is perfect. Saint Joan, Cause Celebre, Strange Interlude, Husbands and Sons, Oil, the unfairly maligned Common. In her every major London stage role in the last few years she has, to overwork the sporting metaphors, banged it out the park. Of course, there may be some cause and effect here, as I will see everything she stars in. Even so, for my money, she is on a par with the theatrical dames of the prior generation. I am literally wetting myself with excitement at next year’s NT Macbeth with her and Rory Kinnear.

Now I was not as impressed as the smart money with Florian Zeller’s The Father thinking it a bit too tricksy, (mind you I had an uncomfy perch on the night of performance so my view might, literally, have been guided by arse), but there was no doubting Mr Cranham’s sterling performance. Here his Alex starts off, unsurprisingly, a little discombobulated by Georgie’s approaches. As the relationship unfolds, and he opens up, we see the joy fill first his face and, eventually, his whole body. Ms Duff similarly is as skilled in bringing Georgie to life through her movement as much as her words. Together their timing is perfect with the interplay of lines, and pauses, perfectly modulated. As Alex explains, when talking about his love of music, it is all about “the space between the notes”. They get it.

My guess is that, in lesser hands, this might all be far less effective. Simon Stephens is a wise man I think because he seems to know how important is the rest of the collaborative eco-system. Whether this be the writers whose works he has adapted (Chekhov on multiple occasions, Mark Haddon for The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Bizet for Carmen Disruption) or directors (Marianne Elliot, here and many times before, Carrie Cracknell, Katie Mitchell and, successfully, the erratic Ivo van Hove).

More importantly he is a very wise man because, as he says in the programme, “I think I only write plays because I’ve never been in The Fall”. There are those of us who recognise that the most important artist in the world is alive, well (hopefully) and using his free over 60s bus pass in Prestwich, and those of you who don’t.

Don Juan in Soho at the Wyndham’s Theatre review ****

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Don Juan in Soho

Wyndham’s Theatre, 22nd May

Get this. The programme says that since a Spanish dramatist, Tirso di Molina, first brought Don Juan to the world in around 1620 he has appeared in at least 1,800 plays, operas, novels, films and poems. And I bet he appeared as a stock character in stories before the printing presses started rolling in earnest (though I am not away that this anti-hero was a feature of Greek or Roman theatre – but they were a cultured bunch right).

So what does this tell us. That people really like and admire him? Or that an overwhelmingly patriarchal artistic community keep shoving this obnoxious prick down our throats (literally), reflecting their own wish-fulfillment fantasies? Search me. I only really know the story from Mozart and Da Ponte’s opera, Don Giovanni (extracts from which unsurprisingly bookended this production). And every time I go into a performance of that, and usually for the first couple of scenes (the rape of Donna Anna for that is what it is, the murder of the Commendatore, and Leporello’s catalogue of conquests on behalf of his master), I think why I am watching this misogynistic clap-trap.

Then Mozart’s music takes over, Don Giovanni does eventually come unstuck and, finally, gets the comeuppance that maybe he deserves. This neatly then absolves us of any approbation we may have had for our anti-hero (and indeed any sneaking admiration some might harbour). All seems resolved except that within minutes of leaving I am once again questioning how I enjoying the tale of a dissolute libertine. I know, I know don’t judge a work of art written hundreds of years ago by today’s moral compass. But what I do often wrestle with is the audience reaction to this character.

Now the play, as interpreted by Moliere, also ups the ante by presenting Don Juan, in some ways, as worthy of our respect because he represents true freedom, the right to live your life as you please. Even more so he exposes the hypocrisy of all around him. This is where Patrick Marber, in this substantial adaptation originally produced in 2006, and which he also directs, pivots his attention with, I have to say, very considerable success. Our anti-hero, now just DJ, is alive and well in contemporary Soho, alongside his put-upon side-kick, Stan.

Now the first thing to say is that David Tennant and Adrian Scarborough end up with the audience in the palm of their hands so adept are their performances. There are times when I get annoyed by David Tennant who just seems to find it all too easy. I was not as bowled over as most by his last major stage work-out in the RSC’s Richard II and some of his TV work grates. And here, at first, I felt he was just too indulgent in his portrayal. But I was wrong and quickly came round. Similarly I felt Adrian Scarborough, at first, wasn’t getting to grips with any of the reasons why Stan would put up with this sort of treatment. Again I was wrong. The power of reflected glory is clearly an overwhelming aphrodisiac for the poor chap.

The same early apprehension I felt about the actors (remember too this is also the point when I am questioning the whole set up anyway) was manifest with Patrick Marber’s text. It just seemed too simplistic at first and inclined to allow the lead actor, ( I gather this was might also have been true of Rhys Ifans in the Donmar Warehouse original production), to lazily tick off the cheap laughs. Well, again  I was wrong as I think this approach means we too are quickly snared by our anti-hero’s charismatic web, which then serves to heighten the subsequent moral dualism. I have noticed this before with Mr Marber’s work. Dealer’s Choice, Closer and The Red Lion all take a bit of time to get going and his screenplay for Notes on a Scandal is similarly unhurried.

So what of the production itself. I am not sure the shoehorning in of Soho, as a symbol for London’s corrupted history, entirely works. It does give us the necessary statue in the form of King Charles II (he was of course the antidote to the cultural scourge of Puritanism). Soho also fuels a short, and not entirely relevant, piece in the programme focussed on the drunken antics of the artistic community in the 1950s and 1960s (Bacon, Thomas, Freud and hangers on). However, I think its symbolic value as the capital’s continuing den of sexual iniquity now looks a bit antiquated in a world of ubiquitous digital pornography. Anna Fleische’s modern setting and costumes, and the interpolation of dance and snatches of contemporary music (how can I not like a play that has masked dancers in white robes whirling around to Taking Heads’s Memories Can’t Wait!), does though set the perfect tone for this pursuit of gratification.

Mr Marber really cranks up the ambiguity in the scene with the beggar, here a Muslim who he forments, but fails, to blaspheme, the duping of Dad to keep the funds flowing and DJ’s climatic monologue, which I gather has been updated for this production. Here the railing against today’s grandiosity, virtue signalling and all-round attention seeking cant and humbug, induced slightly uneasier ripples of laughter through the audience when compared to the undemanding sallies at the expense of one D Trump earlier on. I’d say this is where Mr Marber really hit the mark.

So, overall, I think the writing, direction and performances richly decorate what remains, at its heart, still a very ugly construction. We are amused, we are seduced, we are instructed, we are chided for our complicity. The emptiness of hedonism that lies at the very heart of our DJ, is revealed and, ultimately, this proves his nemesis. Catharsis indeed.