Circa Two, Circa Theatre, 1 Taranaki St, Waterfront, Wellington

13/07/2013 - 10/08/2013

Production Details

What do you see? 

Passion. Rage. Blood. Red is a six-time Tony Award-Winning play by John Logan (Skyfall, Hugo, The Aviator) about the richly layered and complex character and canvases of Mark Rothko, one of the 20th Century’s most influential abstract expressionists.

It’s 1958 in his New York studio. Rothko has been offered the biggest commission in the history of modern art – a series of murals for the iconic Manhattan Four Seasons restaurant. Embarked upon with his young assistant Ken, it is a battle of wits and brushes as the two characters torment over the purpose of art, and the still current paradox of creating true art within a world of commerce.

John Bach (Lord Of The Rings, Duggan) reprises a watershed performance, “Bach’s Rothko overwhelms us, much as Rothko wants his paintings to do” -ODT.

Also starring Paul Waggott (Tribes, Clybourne Park) and Directed and Designed by Andrew Foster (Black Confetti, West End Girls), this Wellington Premiere is compulsory for all creative souls. 

Book through Circa Theatre on 04 801 7992 or 
Circa Theatre Opening Night Saturday 13 July, 7.30pm (90 min) 
Preview Show Friday 12 July, 7.30pm and Sunday 14 July, 4.30pm 
Season: 7.30pm Tuesday 16 July – Saturday 10 August (excl Mon), Matinee Sundays 4.30pm 
$46 full / $38 senior / $33 friends of circa / $39 groups 6+ / $36 groups 20+ / $25 under 25s / $25 previews 

1 hr 30 MINS

Seeing Red at its most vibrant

Review by Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 17th Jul 2013

“What do you see?” are the first and last challenging lines of the stimulating play Red. They are spoken with a steely intensity by John Bach in his superb performance as the American abstract painter Mark Rothko. 

At the start he is lost in a painting which is hanging behind the audience. His gaze is so intense I was tempted to turn round and look too. But his question is not only a challenge to the audience about what they see in abstract painting, it is also a challenge to Ken, a young art student, who has arrived to work as his assistant.

Ken, played by Paul Waggott also giving a superb performance, is understandably nervous and wary of his new boss, as he seems intent on humiliating him about his dismal lack of knowledge about literature, particularly Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy, which the playwright later weaves into the play as the source of the central artistic differences between the two men.

The egotistical Rothko pontificates, bullies, challenges and isolates himself emotionally from his assistant; painting is all. And his latest work – a 1958 commission (the highest in the history of modern art) to create a series of murals for the swanky Manhattan Four Seasons restaurant which Rothko with characteristic hubris says he will turn into a temple– is the focus of the plot of the play.

Ken begins to catch up on his reading. He starts to answer back and challenge Rothko’s approach to his work and his dismissive comments about his rivals like Pollock and emerging artists like Warhol. The debate becomes personal, often funny but always passionate and underlined by a dramatic projection of Rothko’s death and a rather clichéd realisation of Ken’s coming of age.

But it is by no means all talk. We see work in progress in the studio as canvas is stretched, paint mixed, and in one amazing scene a frenzied covering of a canvas in red paint.

Bach and Waggott give not-to-be missed performances. Bach inhabits Rothko so completely that the actor disappears. Waggott in the more conventional role and saddled with a harrowing and, arguably, superfluous scene of childhood revelation manages to keep the character free of the formulaic.

Andrew Foster’s direction and set design coupled with his actors’ performances has produced a first-class Circa production. 


Make a comment

Embrace it

Review by John Smythe 14th Jul 2013

It’s the artist’s eternal dilemma, trying to reconcile art and commerce, pragmatism and conscience, expediency and integrity, emotion and reason … even life and death. 

Then there’s the question of where quality, value or truth lie in a work of art itself. Do they exist independently of ‘the eye of the beholder’ or are they to be measured by the last price paid by ‘the market’? Does ‘the market’ have any knowledge, expertise or taste when it comes to art – and does it matter?

John Logan’s RED also explores the employer-employee / teacher-student / sorcerer-apprentice relationship, in the context of the next inevitable seismic shift in contemporary art: in this case from abstract expressionism to pop art.

These are the themes that make this play so much more than “about the richly layered and complex character and canvases of Mark Rothko”, as stated in the Circa programme. Those works are, however, what provoked Logan to write the play, which in turn asserts that the red backgrounds of the (highly figurative) Villa of Mysteries fresco in Pompeii moved Rothko to embark on the abstract modernist panels that are the device for bring its themes into focus.

It traverses 1958-59, when Rothko works on the paintings commissioned for the soon-to-open Four Seasons restaurant in mid-town Manhattan’s exciting new Seagram Building (described on Wikipedia as one of the finest examples of the functionalist aesthetic and a masterpiece of corporate modernism). And if you check out the Rothko web page, you will see this represents a very small part of his lifetime’s work, although it does mark his move to a limited palette of red, maroon, brown, and black; the start of a descent into darkness according to Logan.

By way of dramatizing his themes, Logan invents an assistant for Rothko called Ken, fresh out of art school and ready to learn from the master. Both are emotionally wounded souls.

Marcus Rothkowitz – who renamed himself Mark Rothko to hide his heritage – is the son of Russian Jewish immigrants (he joined his father in Portland, Oregon, in 1913, when he was 10). He invests every brushstroke with tragedy and sees the death of Jackson Pollock (Dionysus to his Apollo) as a suicide, caused by the tragedy of fame.

Ken, whose family name is not revealed, suffered a profoundly affecting trauma when he was seven. Presumably Logan invented this back story to relieve Ken of the taint of post-war innocence and privilege, and to compare and contrast their different ways of ‘moving on’. Not only does Ken rate Pollock as his favourite painter, but later he has the balls to see value in Andy Warhol’s work (Logan taking artistic licence here, given Warhol came to prominence in the early ’60s), not to mention jazz v classical music.

Despite his camouflaging name change, Rothko was yeshiva-educated and is thus steeped in the convention of confrontational argument by way of challenging the intellect to develop, strengthen and sharpen (also key to the father figure in Tribes, produced at Circa earlier this year). His claim that Ken only begins to exist in his world when he finally confronts him back in equally challenging terms proves the depth of his value system.

John Bach captures this essential quality in a beautifully modulated performance. There is a deep-set paradox in his being (especially if you see his work as part of the ‘high modernism’ movement described by American cultural critic Prof Bram Dijkstra as “antihumanist, hostile to notions of community, of any form of humanism.”)* His Rothko’s ostensibly abusive behaviour, his self-absorption and lack of interest in Ken as a person, his stark and ever-darkening abstractions, devoid now of any hint of the human figure, and his assertion that he aims to create “something that will ruin the appetite of every son-of-a-bitch who ever eats in that room” belie a profound humanity that is almost too much to bear.

Bach’s wielding of the shield and dropping of it, his desire for kindness and his inability to offer it, his motor-mouth pontifications and silences, all make for a riveting performance – especially in the intimacy of Circa Two.

Paul Waggott’s Ken is equally compelling as he suffers the slings and arrows of Rothko’s tirades in silence then finds his voice at last, returning the ‘compliment’ with a perfectly balanced blend of passion and vulnerability. He ensures we get to care so much that we desperately want to see the painting he has done but keeps under wraps.  

While the debates on art are fascinating, in and of themselves, the most magnetic moments for me are the two stories they tell each other: Ken of the childhood experience that changed his life forever; Rothko of his visit to the Four Seasons restaurant. It’s the humanity of it that really hits home. 

As the designer, Andrew Foster has transformed Circa Two into an authentic-looking studio (Rothko had rented a former YMCA gymnasium to work on this commission) and lighting designer Ulli Briese plays with light ingeniously – not least with the highly significant flood of daylight at the very end.

As director, Foster presides over a quietly confident production that is dynamically modulated to draw our interest in, deeper and deeper; to ask us what it is we see then allow it to embrace us – just as the characters do with us, having cast us as a big red canvas.

And that is the question we are left with: what is it, exactly, we have seen? I can only add go and see for yourself. Embrace it.  

My own strong response at the end is that both these men need a good hug, preferably from each other. And I’d like to think that half a century on that would happen. But would that be conducive to either of them making great art? Another paradox?
– – – – – – – – – – – – – –
*“Much of the post-WWII high modernism in America and the rest of the western world is antihumanist, hostile to notions of community, of any form of humanism,” said American cultural critic Prof Bram Dijkstra in a interview with Ron Hogan. “It becomes about the lack of meaning, the need to create our own significance out of nothing. The highest level of significance, that of the elite, becomes abstraction. So the concept of the evolutionary elite arises again, deliberately excluding those who ‘haven’t evolved.”


Make a comment

Wellingon City Council
Aotearoa Gaming Trust
Creative NZ
Auckland City Council