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Artist Mark Rothko at war with himself and his work

By Victoria Laurie

Will O'Mahony, left, and James Hagan in Red. Picture: Onward Production Source: Supplied

THEATRE:Red. By John Logan. Subiaco Arts Centre, August 12.

ABSTRACT expressionist painter Mark Rothko was paid handsomely in the late 1950s to create a series of murals for an upmarket Manhattan restaurant.

It caused him torment: had he sold his soul? And, under threat from the younger pop art movement, would his masterpieces of pure colour find an audience?

In Red, American playwright John Logan offers a superb account of Rothko's dilemma. Logan (whose screenwriting career includes Gladiator and The Aviator) infuses the combative dialogue between Rothko and his long-suffering young assistant Ken with more insights about the nature and transcendence of art than any staid textbook.

It is astounding that this multi-Tony Award-winning 2009 play was not picked up earlier in Australia. Logan, a strong supporter of independent theatre, in March gave an Adelaide-based company the first rights to stage Red. Perth is the second taker, a credit to independent producer Sally Burton, who has chosen to invest the estate of ex-husband Richard Burton in staging productions.

James Hagan dons Rothko's role like a heavy existential shroud, wrapping himself in the artist's dark persona. Hagan has utter mastery of the part; he channels Rothko's incandescent rage in every trembling gesture and his timing gives perfect pace to the alternately volatile and chastened encounters with Ken.

Logan's writing is intoxicatingly clever in these exchanges: Ken is tutored in the art of looking at art until he becomes the voice of Rothko's conscience. As Ken, young actor Will O'Mahony is compelling to watch as he attacks the older artist's "titanic self-absorption".

Director Lawrie Cullen-Tait is the third element in this creative trio. She gives both actors a repertoire of quasi-religious rituals to perform that illuminate the artistic process, from sizing canvasses to the cathartic act of applying paint.

Cullen-Tait's talents extend to set design. Studio clutter contrasts with one symbolic feature, a damaged classical column that bears the weight of a civilised world, mirroring Rothko's desire to become a pillar in the Western pantheon.

A revealing aspect of this sure-footed production lies in a crucial staging decision. We do not see Rothko's work, unlike the New York stage show that projected images of his paintings. The Broadway version began with Rothko standing, back to audience, staring at his paintings. In this show, he sits contemplating a dark point in the auditorium where the works provoke and pulsate on an imaginary wall. I prefer this version: Red is as much about every artist's intangible relationship with their audience as it is about Rothko.

Tickets: $50. Bookings: (08) 9484 1133. Until August 27

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