RED (and the emperor’s new clothes)



QPAC Playhouse

27th April – 19th May


Reviewed by Xanthe Coward 


“Have you noticed just how often the critics disagree with one another? And how often they’re just wrong?”

Seth Godin


In the 1950s, Rothko took a commission that would set him up for life. He was showered with money by Manhattan’s elite in return for a series of paintings that would decorate the swanky Four Seasons Restaurant in the brand new, soaring, steel-and-glass monument to corporate modernism, the Seagram Building on Park Avenue.

Rothko forged his art into a weapon against the richest bastards in New York, vowing clandestinely to create stomach-turning crimson canvases that would “ruin the appetite of every son-of-a-bitch who eats there” – but in 1959, out of the blue, he stormily reclaimed the paintings and gave back the money. The catalyst of that event went with the abstract expressionist to his grave. It’s this mystery that is explored with stunning intensity in Red, along with the relationship between master and protégé, art and commerce, artist and audience. From the pen of John Logan – acclaimed screenwriter of Gladiator, The Aviator, Hugo and forthcoming James Bond film Skyfall this six-time Tony Award winner is a true masterpiece.


Colin Friels breathes life into tortured artist Mark Rothko as he broods and seethes in his Bowery Studio, literally painting himself into a corner, in RED.


The Emperor's New ClothesI COULD BE WRONG BUT…


I’m watching a parade pass by – the town has been painted RED – and I want to point and whisper, “Look! He’s not wearing any clothes!” But no matter what I whisper, people will love this show. The ARTISTS will love this show. And thank goodness for that! Art is so personal! When we look at art we each see something completely different! Art has the power to unite or divide! That’s what art does! (Art can probably even reverse the effects of global warming!). Well, everyone in Brisbane appears to be gushing about RED and I feel like I’ve seen a different show. And that’s okay. Isn’t it?


QTC have brought MTC’s production of John Logan’s RED to the Playhouse stage. I can’t help but wonder what the result might have been if they’d presented it themselves. Seriously. I think the question has to be asked. What would Michael Futcher, or Todd MacDonald, or Wesley Enoch do?! What more would anybody else do with this difficult script? This version, directed by the Australian film industry’s “Prince of Darkness” Alkinos Tsilimidos surprised me because I expected…more.


On our way home from Brisvegas, after stopping for chai and New York Baked Cheesecake at The Three Monkeys, as we do, I checked my bloglovin’ (as I do) and read a post by Seth Godin. You can read it here. I guess if you’re able to trust the opinion of a particular critic then GREAT! Go ahead and book tickets – or not – based on that opinion. By the same token, if the general (“mass”) opinion suits you, by all means be informed by it. My guess is that the general consensus in this case will be that RED is brilliant, inspiring, riveting and challenging, however; for me it was not so. And here’s the telling thing: a few days later, the fact that I was underwhelmed by it still ANNOYS me.


MTC RED Colin Friels

While I feel there’s something dynamic missing from the master-student relationship, which I suspect is (not) in the writing, I enjoyed Colin Friels’ performance. I love his characterisation (Mark Rothko, tortured artist) and I love his vocal work, which is perfectly placed, coming from deep frustration and that easily recognisable trait (!) the stubborn arrogance of the artist. In short, his is a fine study of a man who believed no one worthy of his paintings. Likewise, Tom Barton as the assistant, Ken, does a fine job, stepping up to argue Rothko’s points, and to deliver a suitably dramatic monologue, which describes the gruesome discovery years ago, of his parents, murdered in their bed. Of course Rothko can’t help but challenge Ken to see his crippling memories as inspiration for his own artistic endeavours! We must suffer for our art, and all that stuff! Both actors do what they can with material that doesn’t give them too many opportunities to go any deeper than the epidermis.


It’s Sam’s opinion that, in either a directorial masterstroke or by complete accident, Ken comes to life in the very scene that Rothko states he’s done just that.


The script deals in age-old ideas; the classic arguments about art (WHAT IS IT?), and yes, it’s absolutely fascinating, I love it, but there’s no new treatment here; we’ve heard it all before. And… IS THAT ALL? Much of it is delivered in wonderful clichés and quotable quotes, which we might see and share as Facebook memes, or hear in our favourite TED talks. I don’t tire of it! AND I WANT MORE. I don’t mind the heightened dialogue, the quotable quotes and the grandiose speeches. I grew up in a household that talked talks – still – about art in grandiose speeches. At the dinner table at Mum’s, over cups of tea on the verandah, and during the ad breaks of any program we watch together (we haven’t had “real TV” at our place for a year again so we do twilight TV visits from time to time. We go through these phases…), there is always something to be said about art…or politics or history or religion. ART IS SO VERY PERSONAL. Yes, yes it is.


The studio space – a replica of Rothko’s rented Bowery space – looks fabulous (Set Designer Shaun Gurton) but the set is underutilised, with a massive shelf structure wasted (a staple gun was pushed along the floor offstage to…where exactly?!), and instead, a teeny, tiny art/tea type trolley, you know the sort, is used at vital points of the play. It’s set so far back that we watch for ages, trying to work out what it is Friels is mixing back there with his paint and eggs. (Oh right, it’s the primer. They’ll throw it around on a canvas later, remember?). And why put Friels in an unflattering mustard coloured shirt? Perhaps that’s as it was, sure, but C’MON! IT’S THEATRE! Take some artistic liberties; if you haven’t got an Alfred Molina, who looked, in the original Donmar Warehouse production pics, remarkably like the artist himself, at least put your Rothko in a great shirt! (Costume Designer Jill Johanson). When we have to suffer it for ninety minutes we can only care so much about authenticity. Too harsh? Probably. My suffering was, indeed, less than Sam’s.


Luckily for us, Friels does his utmost in this production to keep the momentum going, keeping us pretty captivated throughout. But the play only gives us so much. And the direction seems intent on slowing up the minimal action and stubbornly, insists on looking at the piece from behind the lens of a single camera, from right out front.


In theatre, the film director loses his best friend, the editor. In Tsilimidos’s RED we get a string of pictures without the satisfying transitions in between. It’s the links that are missing, in both the writing and direction. It feels like each change in pace, which really doesn’t vary much, should be as smooth as the juxtaposition of so many film scenes, but on stage these transitions only translate as clunky, old school scene changes (performed by stage hands during lengthy – some might say languorous – blackouts), and apart from the creation of natural daylight (Rothko abhorred natural light!) and a couple of mandatory pieces of stirring classical music, the lighting design (Matt Scott) and sound design (Tristan Meredith) seems just as unsupportive of the play. (I think most high schools have the very same city traffic sound effects CD!). This is a character-driven play and we’re asked to follow its plot. We vaguely get some sense of time passing, but it’s just as well Ken reminds Rothko he has worked for him for two years or we’d never know, not from the state of the paintings, nor from the growth of the characters or relationship between them, nor from any other clue. Logan might have written about any artist preaching to any student over the course of an hour, a day, a month or a year! And what of the actual painting, live on stage; the priming of the canvas, so talked about in reference to other productions, and so anticipated in the lead up to this one? A total non-event! It felt rushed and gimmicky (and on opening night we listened and watched as Friels listened to the music for his cue to put brush to canvas!).

You gotta’ have a gimmick.


Do I expect too much? I don’t think so.


The thing is this: Brisbane audiences are discerning enough to expect more than an award winning script, a celeb in the lead role and a bit of paint splashed about on stage. We are also respectful and appreciative enough to offer applause for three curtain calls, regardless of individual opinion. I could be wrong but I’ll finish with Sam’s opinion again, because I’m accustomed to walking out of the theatre with a completely different view but for once we agree: he says the curtain call was like the pat on the back of a NSW jersey. “You did your best but you’re a long way from winning.”


I’d love to know what you thought of RED. Are you an artist? Do you just love this play? Could this production have been any better? Did I miss something? (Oh, right! Stupid question! Of course I MUST have missed something! Everyone knows a reviewer who didn’t love the work didn’t GET the work!).


Now you’d better have a listen to this. Because no matter how I or anybody else receives this production, RED deserves your attention and your personal response to it. Sharing art (sending it out into the world) IS hard. “Are you supposed to please people?” Not at all. Should we share the same opinions about art?  Of course not. Let’s at least agree on that!



1 Response to “RED (and the emperor’s new clothes)”

  1. 1 Simon
    May 6, 2013 at 8:58 pm

    Don’t be too quick to assume the industry will disagree with you. As an “insider” all the people I know in the biz were extremely underwhelmed. A play that says art should be alive -and yet the play is exceedingly dull.

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