In juxtaposition to its action-packed title, RED is not a stage adaptation of a Bruce Willis film, but rather a play based in the 1950s when the meaning of art was about to be redefined.
Based on an original play by John Logan, and under the capable direction of Sophia Bryant, SUDS skilfully presents an intriguing core theme — a war of artistic ideals between main characters.
The play takes place over a two-year period in the latter part of Mark Rothko’s (Sam Fraser) career, a New York City based artist. We follow Rothko as he works on a series of murals commissioned for the Four Seasons hotel, with the help of his fictional apprentice Ken (Elliot Ulm).
Ulm, as the 20-something assistant Ken, delivers a single, seemingly throwaway line which, whether intentional or not, struck like a long-awaited punchline to a tragic, bitter joke: “They’re only paintings”. Continuing the play’s thematic discussion of the subjective significance of art, the line also seems to reflect a feeling of hopelessness and futility for Rothko when his competitors such as Andy Warhol and pop art were on the rise.
Such a concept may not have been as expertly conveyed in a production any weaker than Bryant’s. As can be expected from SUDS, the set left little room for improvement, where the audience walked into an undeniably authentic artist’s studio — completely wiping out any smidgen of a theatre space from the building.
Lavish classical music played throughout the performance, with more dramatic pieces chosen for when Rothko paints. These moments of genuine serenity and splendour, also seemingly mocked Rothko. The heavy sarcasm made the play hilarious in the saddest of ways, as we witnessed a man trying so hard to cling onto his self-constructed grandeur.
Fraser provided a unique and unexpected portrayal of Rothko, where his age made their 50-year-old lead character’s fear of oblivion all the more heartbreaking. Despite a slightly inconsistent accent, Ulm’s characterisation was no less enthralling than Fraser’s. Ulm gave an equally reserved performance as Ken, often accentuating his more mild-mannered and timid qualities. Such a depiction enabled the audience to become participants in, rather than spectators of Rothko’s rants.
It is, however, hard to deny that while the play is pretty monotonous, and uneventful. But, this is rectified by two of its main features: incredibly rich, stimulating thematic content, all the while contained to an hour-long runtime.
Pivotal components of the play – including the individual performances, Bryant’s direction, and the lighting – came together in a masterful stroke as Rothko’s fears of oblivion finally caught up to him.
Early in the play, Ken asks Rothko how he knows when a painting is done, to which Rothko replies “There’s tragedy in every brush stroke.” I struggle to think of a more apt way to describe this production than that.
Catch the last performance of RED at the Cellar Theatre, tonight at 7pm.