I am not a fan of Mark Rothko.

However, there is a Rothko print hanging in my loungeroom because RM is a fan of Rothko. Which is also how we came to be in the audience for Red, Melbourne Theatre Company‘s production of the Tony award winning play by John Logan with Colin Friels starring as Rothko.

The construct is simple – the set is fixed as Rothko’s Manhattan studio in the 1950s and the play is a two-hander between Mark Rothko and his hapless young assistant. The dialogue (as there’s not much in the way of action) takes place against the work-in-progress backdrops of one of the most famous modern art commissions, murals for the Seagram’s Four Season’s restaurant.

Rothko is famous and rich and concerned with becoming an irrelevant old-timer in the face of Pop Art knocking Abstract Expressionism off the art pedestal. The characters discuss, yell and fight about art vs commercialism, how art should speak to viewers, Rothko’s disdain for the buyers of his art vs him ambition and the horrors of natural light. Rothko fans will be familiar with these views from his book The  Artist’s Reality.

Colin Friels and André de Vanny do an excellent job with the ideas-rich text. There’s no real plot, other than the progress of these of the Seagram landscapes, so it requires concentration from the actors and the audience to make sense of the flitting from one concept to another. That’s not to say that there is no structure – it’s a very tightly written piece which fits a lot of provocative thoughts into 90 minutes (no interval).

We all know how this story ends. Rothko decides to reject the Seagram’s commission and to protect the paintings. And I’ve seen some of these paintings in their monumental glory, lit as Rothko intended them – in a dark, somber environment, not hung in a noisy, moneyed restaurant. It’s the only piece of Rothko’s art that I actually like – and watching Red is an enjoyable way to somewhat understand the mind of this famous artist.

For more photos from the production check out MTC’s Flickr stream.

RedMelbourne Theatre Company, Sumner Theatre, 140 Southbank Blvd, Southbank
Season Dates 26 March to 5 May 2012