RED | Theatre Review
The Lyric, Belfast • Runs until 22 April ’17
By Conor Charlton
Writer John Logan’s play Red centres around the painter Mark Rothko, during a period when he was granted the most lucrative art commission in art history at that time; he was asked to decorate 50 square metres of wall space in the Four Seasons Restaurant of the high-end Seagram Building in New York. Red is a piece very much about identities, the feeling of lack of place within society and the effects of straddling two different worlds, all whilst bringing up that question of “why do we need art?”.
With The Lyric’s latest production, Rothko himself is expertly brought to life by Patrick O’Kane coming off as abusive, pompous and verbose. He is a bipolar mentor figure for the at times nervy but ultimately more likeable Ken played by Thomas Finnegan, who at times acts as a foil for the older character’s arrogance. This means that the two-hander flows much more similarly to a series of ranted monologues than an exchange of dialogue, so that we can see the depth of Rothko’s troubles.
Those troubles are varied. The Russian born Jew, Rothkowitz often feels out of place in an upper-class WASP-driven world, and frets about art not being visceral enough, the use of colour and its significance, the triviality of being ‘romantic’ and the seasoned artist fear of not being recognised as truly great. Whilst he professes to have a much soberer and Apollo-like approach to art than his more Dionysian deceased contemporary, Jackson Pollock, there’s also an Iliad-esque concern of being caught between Scylla and Charybdis – of past and future. Despite not wishing to belong to any art movement, Rothko wishes to destroy the cubists before him whilst refusing to give way to the pop art generation of the 60s. It’s O’Kane’s stagecraft which really shines through in these parts; he carries himself as a dynamic, imposing figure, led by his middle-aged gut. The character almost being thoroughly detestable is saved by a raw charisma component of his cantankerous nature. One has to sympathise for his throat as an untrained actor would likely have their vocal box cut to ribbons from delivering his lines in that harsh New York Jewish accent.
There’s a lot to be said about Finnegan’s active thought as well. With the play spanning the course of two years, we see him develop a backbone as he ‘day in, day out’ suffers the barrage of spite from the older painter, never truly backing down when challenged by his overbearing senior. In the second act, he delivers to the audience a tragic revelation of his past. The young actor delves deep into his imagination in such a way that his story is painted in our own minds with graphic detail. Having only recently graduated from the Royal Welsh College of Theatre and Drama, I suspect Finnegan will likely be extremely active in the theatre scene for years to come. His energy required for the hour and a half long piece, whether in his impassioned gesticulations or when he’s required to drag heavy pieces of canvas around the stage is truly admirable. With Emma Jordan’s direction, the use of well-timed, hard hitting silences have allowed both Finnegan and O’Kane to make the play as much about internal monologue as external one. As their intellectual relationship unfolds on Ciaran Bagnall’s art studio set, we’re treated to a balletic style use of movement, perfectly supported by Carl Kennedy’s wonderfully varied soundtrack.