Maidment Theatre, Auckland

04/06/2011 - 25/06/2011

Production Details

Michael Hurst stars in turbo-charged bio-drama about famed artist Mark Rothko

Oliver Driver directs Michael Hurst in Auckland Theatre Company’s new production of John Logan’s Tony Award winning play, RED, opening at the Maidment Theatre on June 2.

“Logan’s intense and exciting two-character bio-drama [is] a master class of questions and answers…What we see, above all, is an artist ‘seeing’, and it’s impossible not to feel thrilled by the privilege,” New York Times.

At the height of his fame, Mark Rothko has just landed the biggest commission in the history of modern art, a series of murals for New York’s famed Four Seasons Restaurant.  As this brilliant master wrestles with the overwhelming task, he begins to question his views on art, creativity and commerce.  

And when his young apprentice, Ken, gains the confidence to challenge him, Rothko faces the agonizing possibility that his crowning achievement could also become his undoing. 

Raw and provocative, Red is a searing portrait of an artist’s ambition and vulnerability as he tries to create a definitive work. 

“Logan sends American abstract impressionist painter Mark Rothko into battle with his demons in this electrifying play of ideas, and the artist’s howls are pure music,” Variety. 

“Most plays about painters avoid the actual painting,” says Auckland Theatre Company artistic director, Colin McColl, “but the great thing about RED is that we get to experience the art, the craft, the sheer hard slog; the whole messy, physical process, from stretching and sizing the canvases, mixing and applying the paint and we get the exhilaration of the act, too. 

“RED is a philosophical, visceral, tough, emotional voyage into the very heart and soul of an artist,” McColl.

RED, was first produced by the Donmar Warehouse, London in December 2009, and on Broadway, where it received six Tony Awards in mid-June, 2010, the most of any play, including best play.

Logan was a successful playwright in Chicago for many years before turning to screenwriting.. He gained an Academy Award nomination for co-writing GLADIATOR (which won Best Picture) in 2000. He gained a second nomination for writing THE AVIATOR. Other notable films written by Logan include STAR TREK: NEMESIS, THE TIME MACHINE and THE LAST SAMURAI. In 2007 he won a Golden Globe Award for the screenplay of the Tim Burton-directed film adaptation of SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET. 

Logan’s most recent feature films include RANGO, an animated feature starring Johnny Depp and directed by Gore Verbinski, the film adaptation of Shakespeare’s “CORIOLANUS” directed by and starring Ralph Fiennes, and the film adaptation of THE INVENTION OF HUGO CABRET directed by Martin Scorsese. 

“A portrait of an angry and brilliant mind that asks you to feel the shape and texture of thoughts…as much as any stage work I can think of, Red captures the dynamic relationship between an artist and his creations,” The New York Times

RED by John Logan

Maidment Theatre
June 2 – 25
Preview Thu 2-Jun 8.00pm
Preview Fri 3-Jun 8.00pm
Opening Night Sat 4-Jun 8.00pm
Subscriber & Ambassador Forum Tue 7-Jun 6.30pm
Tue – Wed 6.30pm
Thu – Sat 8.00pm
Sun – 4pm

*note no Monday performance
Tickets for RED by John Logan can be purchased from the Maidment Theatre, 308 2383 or

Michael Hurst: Rothko
Elliot Christensen-Yule: Ken

John Parker: Set & Costume Designer
Brad Gledhill: Lighting Designer
Claire Cowan: Sound Designer  

Powerful portrait of an abstract artist

Review by Paul Simei-Barton 06th Jun 2011

Fine collaboration gives Mark Rothko’s expressionist art the respect it deserves 

Rothko’s luminous rectangles of pure colour represent a final stab at the modernist project of creating an art that would usurp the function of religion.

As with earlier attempts to cram transcendence into the painted surfaces of abstract art, the promised epiphany never happens. But John Logan’s Tony Award-winning play delivers a powerful testament to the heroism of Rothko’s relentless devotion to an impossible task.

What makes the play so compelling is that Rothko is not put on a pedestal but neither is he subject to a clever postmodern deconstruction and the appealing mythology of abstract expressionism is accorded the respect it deserves. [More]
For more production details, click on the title above. Go to Home page to see other Reviews, recent Comments and Forum postings (under Chat Back), and News. 


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Engages the visceral and pits it against the mundane

Review by Lexie Matheson ONZM 06th Jun 2011

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. (The more things change, the more they stay the same.)

On the day James Wallace is named in the Queen’s Birthday honours list as a Knight Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit I sit down to review a play about artists, and, more specifically, a play that celebrates the life of a great painter as interpreted by one of our greatest actors.  

It should be an absolute joy. Somehow it’s not. Instead it provokes reflection and disquiet, a disquiet that has burned for decades.

Hamlet tells his players to “hold the mirror up to nature”, and so we should, more often than we do. We arts folk are way too polite. Wallace, an incomparable arts philanthropist, is quoted in the NZ Herald (Monday 06 June, 2011) as saying of the new breed of ultra rich,“I see them attending arts events … but I certainly think they are not into philanthropy. They are immersed in their own lives and their own wealth.” He calls it“a bit of a wake-up call.”

It certainly is. It’s hard to envisage a visual arts landscape without Wallace, and it’s hard to find his equivalent for performance art. For hard, read impossible. 

Auckland Theatre Company’s production of John Logan’s Red is staged in that most professional of venues, the Maidment Theatre. My intimate knowledge of this venue comes from eight years as its Business Manager under Artistic Director Paul Minifie, the fiercest and most articulate advocate for the performing arts I have ever known. Paul, never short of a passionate word on the subject, would often remind us, when funding cuts were mooted, that “nowhere in the western world does professional art exist without subsidy.” He’s right.

It’s worth noting that Paul, one of our most respected actor/directors, hasn’t worked much in this capacity for over a decade, a fact that merges easily with the funding and philanthropy debate as New Zealand’s dismissive attitude to the arts sees many of our most experienced professionals working in banks and behind counters in dress shops when they should be gracing our stages as they would be anywhere else in the world. 

The libertarian-lead debate that nothing should exist that can’t pay for itself frequently rages on my Facebook page and it’s a hard ask to refute it, given that those who feel increasingly empowered to spew forth this ideological venom “know the price of everything and the value of nothing”(Lord Darlington in Act III of Lady Windemere’s Fan by Oscar Wilde). So it’s nothing new. 

I won’t deny that I find the “why should I pay for something I don’t use?”argument specious in the extreme and barely worth debating, but Wallace kicks us back to reality with his wise observations and his heart-felt views will hopefully re-invigorate those of us whose advocacy for a government supported professional arts model may have faltered a bit, weary with age and repetition, and been left crying in the dark. 

If James Wallace can speak up, so can the rest of us.

Red, no matter how good it is – and it is very good – plays right into the hands of those libertarian wankers simply by virtue of its content alone. “Why,”they will bleat, “should they have to pay their hard-earned tax to support an arty-farty play about some arty-farty artist talking all arty-farty so the luvvies can sit in the dark and pretend to enjoy it?”

Chances are they’ll add something about modern art being crap and that they could paint their fences just as impressively. And without funding too, they’ll have us know. Just with the sweat of their brow. Such is their insecurity and residual sense of colonial inadequacy. 

Yet much and all as I loathe and despise this philistine view of what’s important to a community and what’s not, I feel it gaining support from an increasing band of red-necks and fear the mounting impact of Don Brash-style thinking. Let’s face it, John Banks got a gong too, and he’s no lover of the arts! I’m sure you get what I’m saying.

The Maidment experience is, for me, always a very good one. Front of House, box office and bar staff are always immaculately turned out, fully informed and friendly, the beautifully air-conditioned theatre itself is at all times spick and span and sight lines are invariably excellent. It’s good to see signage that reassures us that the University of Auckland (home of the Maidment) is a smoke-free campus particularly as fighting through the fug of second hand smoke to get to the entrance would give the lie to this proposition. 

Red is a good play. Logan is a clever playwright. The team assembled by Auckland Theatre Company for this production is, to use Artistic Director Colin McColl’s term, ‘stellar’. John Parker (set and costume design), Brad Gledhill (lighting design) and Claire Cowan (sound design) are known quantities and Oliver Driver (director) herds his scrumptious cats with aplomb. This, I thought as I sat in the dimming light, immersed in the operatic entr’acte, is going to be good.

Parker’s set is expansive and shallow, a recreation of Rothko’s studio we are told, and contains, in various shades of red, all the knick-knackery of a painter’s craft. Three massive canvases (a feature of Rothko’s work) attack us from the back wall, the stunning recreative work of Paul Pachter. It’s all pretty impressive. 

Parker’s sets are always a dream for both actor and director and this is no different, offering, as it does, such audacious opportunities for the slopping of paint, the slurping of noodles, the supping of mind-numbing amounts of alcohol and the dragging on a myriad of cigarettes. Great for everyone …but the stage manager, perhaps not so much! 

Surrounding us throughout are Claire Cowan’s carefully and evocatively chosen snippets of Rothko’s favourite music, Mozart and Brahms in particular, ‘focusing’ she tells us in the programme, ‘on strings and sparser piano works.’ These provide a suggestive emotional pastiche that works a treat and allows a solitary jazz foray from the beat generation – along with a couple of phone calls – to provide an invasion from the outside world that is effective and aurally unwelcome. They intrude, as they are meant to.

Brad Gledhill’s lighting is superb. From the razor-edged slices of the preshow to the final single spot, he supports the action and illustrates the psyche of the text with a shimmering variety of alternatives that astound. This is a play that talks a lot about light so the chances of not matching up to the unconventional and challenging requirements of the text, let alone Rothko’s own eccentric demands, are high but Gledhill doesn’t miss a beat. 

To engage with the performances you need to know something of the life and times of Marcus Rothkowitz so here goes. If you don’t, you needn’t be overly concerned because the text, rather cleverly, tells you most of what you need to know. This isn’t to suggest that it’s a facts-fest but there are times when they are batted at us thick and fast.  

Playwright John Logan has excellent credentials having gained Oscar nominations for co-writing Gladiator in 2000 and The Aviator in 2004 and written screenplays for The Last Samurai, Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street and the recent animated hit Rango. Red gained its first production at London’s famed Donmar Warehouse in 2009 before transferring to Broadway where it won a record six Tony Awards.

Red is unashamedly thematic, has a few cogent points to make about karma – Rothko and his contemporaries put paid to the American literalists only to, in turn, be replaced by Warhol and the flippant commoditization exemplified by the pop art school who opposed Rothko and what they saw as an elitist art culture – about fathers and sons, about working in isolation, about colour and about art, art, art.

The ultimate irony is that the play itself, as a rarified exposition on the snooty and self-important nature of some high art thinking, may work against its success in a country known for its philistinism and rejection of such precepts. I certainly hope that the less than full house on opening night doesn’t indicate that this very good production may fail to attract the audience it deserves, but this does bring another debate to the fore, and one not dissimilar to Wallace’s and my earlier observations. 

I recall in the early ’90’s hearing the doyen of classical ballet in New Zealand Russell Kerr lamenting small audiences at Southern Ballet with the phrase “people should go to the ballet because it’s good for them.” I didn’t agree with him then and even less so now. Bernadette Rae’s excellent review of Kerr’s Petrouchka (NZ Herald, Friday May 27, 2011 Two tough acts for poor Petrouchka to follow) would rather suggest that nothing has changed in the Kerr philosophy despite the passing of two decades and it’s the kiss of death.

For years, the benchmark for purchasing anything in New Zealand was price, quality, then service and the arts were no different. This is no longer the case. Today the ‘experience’ rules; that unique component that turns the observer into a participant and accessibility is all. The evolution of mall culture is a perfect example.

Going to the theatre because “it’s good for us” is a given, but this sacrificial thinking is no longer sufficient to sell tickets. That’s assuming it ever was. Today’s audience wants to feel part of the process – think Big Day Out – and Red is exciting because it allows us luvvies to engage in a series of debates that are meaningful to us but the question might well be, will they engage Joe Public? Or more importantly Josephine Public as it’s still the chicks who drive ticket sales and bring others with them to the theatre. I guess a further question would be ‘does any of this matter?’ 

I think it does, and my philistine mates would certainly agree though not for the same reasons. If their tax dollars are going into the production of performance art shouldn’t it be easily accessible for them too? Shouldn’t it have some popular appeal? And if it should, does Red fit the bill?

Or is it a boutique, salon play more suited to a smaller, more intimate space where it would more effectively engage with its public? Or is this an eternally unanswerable question, and is the Pope still a catholic? 

Whatever the outcome of such a debate, Red engages the visceral and pits it against the mundane and it does so through the use of a deceptively conversational narrative. It is meditatively evasive, throwing up the odd koan-like proposition such as “if no-one’s in the room, does the Mona Lisa still smile” and is, for the most part, incredibly ordinary. It’s not, but it seems to be.

The fact that Rothko is a great (and famous) artist often seems irrelevant in the way that Lear being a king is sometimes irrelevant, because this is bar-room chat between two blokes of father (“I’m not your father”) and son age who might equally be dissecting an All Black loss as discussing high art while barely noticing the generational changing of the guard.   

Rothko (Michael Hurst) beings the play in work clothes, paint spattered, and his new employee Ken (Elliot Christensen-Yule) is in a suit and tie but by the final curtain this is largely reversed. In between we learn virtually nothing of either man’s current private existence.

While we hear Rothko predict his eventual suicide, predicated on an assumed mental illness and his fear that “one day the black will swallow the red,” we see little evidence of this and barely any of his renowned anger – though when we do, it fairly sizzles. It’s all there, seething below the surface and expressed more than adequately in the sanguinary paintings which surround him and his frequent references to Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy, presumably the 1886 republishing of the work, the latter containing an important trigger for Rothko in the form of a prefatory essay entitled An Attempt at Self-Criticism.

It’s clever playwriting to link the two, and even better when, having told his young apprentice he must read the book, Rothko subsequently denies having even read it himself. Logan clearly has, as much of the play’s hypothesis is based on Nietzsche-like nihilism and perspectivism, and the literary dichotomy of Apollo (reason and logic) versus Dionysus (intoxication and ecstacy). Or, if you like, Mark v Ken and Ken v Mark.

There are some fabulous lines, my favourites being, from Rothko: “All artists should starve – except me” – and from the woman behind me in the dark, on opening night, as Hurst and Christensen-Yule hastily painted a vast canvas blood-red, “It’s a Rolf Harris moment,” a comment monumentally unfair, yet somehow wickedly funny.

Michael Hurst (Mark Rothko) is, in my view, a benchmark for actors pursuing a career in the theatre in New Zealand. He’s done (almost) everything and everything he’s done, he’s done extremely well.  He sought out great training, has played great and small roles with the same degree of professionalism, he has his own vision of how it should be done, has frequently put his money where his mouth is and he has done everything with integrity. 

He’s a benchmark in so much as, if you look, you’ll find models that a young actor can emulate. He’s an example that, despite being a second generation New Zealand actor, he has given every bit as much as he’s got and pioneered where it’s been necessary. While I applaud his body of work, I applaud the man even more.

In creating Rothko, Hurst has transformed himself. People may say he has the advantage of looking like the original which he does in this production – but it’s the craft of the actor, not a quirk of nature that has brought this about. There is none of the dazzling Hurst flamboyance that so often carries us away, but rather a resolute stoicism, a carefully understated fervour that is, at once, intimidating and endearing.

It’s hard not to love someone so immersed in what they do and, in this, character and actor merge almost seamlessly. There are no cracks in the Hurst characterisation, what you see and feel is what this mastercraftsman wants you to see and feel. As always, he takes no prisoners, and the vulnerabilities are all carefully calculated. 

Yet he’s funny too. Funny and quirky. Hurst clocks up the laughs but never at the expense of the script or the narrative. Each is beautifully placed to relieve tension or to illustrate a point and none better than after Ken’s expository monologue about which I shall tell you nothing more. 

Elliot Christensen-Yule as Ken (without a surname) does the business and he does it well. He’s suitably naïve at the beginning and maintains his youthful enthusiasm for his work throughout. He allows us to see Rothko through eyes other than our own and does so without being overly ‘actorly’. He allows Hurst to pitch the play where he wants it to be and has the courage to simply run with it.

Underdone, Ken could have become merely a cipher, overplayed he could have embarrassed the play by forcing Rothko to drive too hard, and it is to his credit that he did neither. He is as he should be, subtle and effective, and when he allows us in we are suitably moved by his narrative.

The two work well together and, as the season progresses, this will evolve even more.

So, it’s an excellent evening in the theatre. 

In conclusion I can’t resist saying that Red is a fine play with acting that is equally fine. It has fine design, fine lighting and fine sound. It is in a fine auditorium and deserves the finest of audiences. In short, it’s all fine.

Now wouldn’t Mark Rothko loathe me for saying that!
For more production details, click on the title above. Go to Home page to see other Reviews, recent Comments and Forum postings (under Chat Back), and News.  


Grant Buist June 13th, 2011

"Instead it provokes reflection and disquiet, a disquiet that has burned for decades" - Shouldn't you see a doctor about that, Lexie?

nom-de-web June 7th, 2011

I'm not sure what this is but  it plays right into the hands of those libertarian wankers simply by virtue of its content alone.

Carly Hood June 6th, 2011

 Pretty sure the cigs the show are fake much like the premise that this a review. Get a blog Lexie. Your take on things is somewhat interesting but you using this review site to vent your spleen is starting to verge on ridiculous and does this website a real disservice.

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