‘Red’ was colourful.
Two artists talking about the relationship between art and commerce for 90 minutes might not sound like captivating theatre but when that theatre is as brilliantly and tightly written as John Logan’s ‘Red’ it is a delightful night out.
Obviously a good script a great production cannot alone make. There are plenty of examples of a good script being ruined by poor direction, terrible performances and poorly balanced technical elements. Thankfully, however, Ad Astra’s production doesn’t fall into any of the aforementioned traps and supports the near-perfect script like a fresh layer of paint on a canvas.
Set in a New York artist’s studio, world-renowned painter Mark Rothko has been commissioned to paint a group of murals for the exclusive Four Seasons. To do this he hires painter Ken to assist him in his endeavours. What follows is a conversation between the two men about topics including the rise of Pop Art, the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche and the works of Jackson Pollock. Since premiering in London in 2009 with Alfred Molina and Eddie Redmayne, the play has been performed on Broadway and across the world. Ad Astra’s production only adds to the legacy of the work thanks to fantastic performances, superb direction and precise but not overpowering lighting and sound design. Plus lots and lots of paint.
Following his 2019 Matilda award win for his performance as Ned Kelly in ‘Kelly’ coincidentally also for Ad Astra, Richard Lund shines as the intimidated Ken. With a raise of an eyebrow and a brief grunt, he manages to add more depth than three monologues delivered by Francis McMahon. Mcmahon’s voice contains magnitudes, bringing shades of colour to even the most seemingly mundane of speeches such as a simple list of the different tones of red.
‘Red’ as a script demands many things from the creative team. The audience needs to be able to see the art on the canvas and see the character staring at the canvas while simultaneously not having the actor blocked by the canvas or have their backs to the audience. Jesse Richardson’s direction cleverly solves this problem by having the art hang, as part of Bill Haycock’s set design, behind the performers despite the fact within the world of the play the art actually hangs in front of the performers on the invisible fourth wall.
Another challenge the script presents on a creative level is that it demands the play takes part in the shadows of mood lighting as the ever finicky Rothko doesn’t want his paintings seen in bright lights. Obviously that can’t really happen in the theatre as the audience needs to be able to see what is happening. Lighting consulting David Walters has crafted a subtle lighting scape that highlights the light and dark with just enough red when the show demands it.
The opening and closing lines of the play asks “What do you see when you look at my art?” The answer is the same both times “red”. Thankfully Ad Astra’s production is more than one hue. It was red and yellow and green and brown, and scarlet and black and ochre and peach… and blue.
‘Red’ performs at Ad Astra in the Fortitude Valley until Sunday, 27 September 2020. For more information and tickets, visit Ad Astra’s Website.