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Theatre Review: Red

DAVID ZAMPATTI, The West Australian August 15, 2011, 11:20 am

By John Logan

Onward Production

Subiaco Arts Centre

Biographical theatre needs to be approached with caution. It's a brave writer who tries to draw drama from a real life, especially a famous one, and a brave actor who attempts to represent that life.

The currency of great theatre is universal human truth, not the facts of an actual life. The more we know about someone, the more difficult it becomes for a writer and actor to convince us that the person on the stage is who he claims to be.

It's the polar opposite of the willing suspension of disbelief - the necessary engagement of belief - and it's essential for biographical theatre to succeed. Which is exactly what Red, John Logan's terrific exploration of the Latvian-American artist Mark Rothko (1903-1970), does.

In 1958, Rothko received an extravagant commission for a series of paintings to hang at the Four Seasons restaurant in New York. Sensationally, shortly before he was to deliver the work, Rothko abandoned the commission.

Controversy still surrounds Rothko's motives for accepting and abandoning the job. Opinions are just as divided about his place in the canon of modern art. What can't be denied is the brooding presence and sensory effect of his work.

All this is the bones of Logan's play, but it's just a jumping-off point for a wide-ranging meditation on art, the artist and the world as the belligerent, self-regarding Rothko (James Hagan) and his increasingly assertive young studio assistant Ken (Will O'Mahony) bicker and battle their way through two years of intense creative activity.

Director Lawrie Cullen-Tait, in an auspicious main stage debut, shows us the muscularity of the physical act of artistic creation; the priming of the canvas, the mixing and boiling of the paint. She moves the conversation between the two men with similar energy, as Rothko flails at the new breed of artists challenging his place on the greasy pole of success and the carnivorous obscenity of the captains of modern commerce, or dissects the power and variety of colour, shape and texture.

There are some outstanding verbal and visual set pieces - one, a joltingly effective premonition of Rothko's grisly and spectacular suicide a decade later - and Cullen-Tait and her cast make the most of what is often very funny dialogue.

Hagan is mighty as Rothko, his voice descending to a rumble, his eyes burning as he searches his canvasses for their next secret. The technical quality of his work, especially the accuracy of his New York/North-Eastern European/Jewish accent, is flawless. There is not a second when you aren't totally convinced he is the man he is playing, and capable of making the art he is making. A tour de force.

O'Mahony has a difficult task in the face of Hagan's sometimes brutal power but he makes a great success of Ken's transition from the intimidated boy from out of town to a man who confronts his employer's egotistical hypocrisy. Ken may be largely a foil for the Great Man, but in O'Mahony's hands he's a very convincing one.

Red is a must-see production and another feather in the cap for the independently funded Onward Production. The play comes to Perth within a couple of years of its London debut and only a year after it dominated the Tony Awards. I hope it attracts an audience large enough to encourage the company to bring more international work of this quality to Perth theatres.

Red runs until September 3

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