“Turn on bright lights and the illusion’s ruined: suddenly it’s nothing but a bare stage with a bunch of fake walls,” protests Ken (Alfred Enoch), the new assistant of abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko (Alfred Molina). Ken switches on the ugly overhead fluorescent lights and the audience gasps to see the theatre, as well as Rothko’s canvases, exposed. In a bold, meta-theatrical move, writer John Logan asserts Rothko’s central preoccupation: art lives and breathes by what surrounds it.
The script is essentially one 90-minute angry monologue by Rothko, as he creates a series of murals for the Four Seasons Restaurant in New York, in 1958. Molina, who originated the role in the original Michael Grandage Donmar Warehouse production in 2009, undertakes the enormous challenge with astonishing truth and power; frightening, self-obsessed and mad with longing for art that really means something. It’s a powerhouse performance that won him the Drama League Award for Distinguished Performance in 2010.
Enoch, known for ABC’s How To Get Away With Murder and the Harry Potter films, gives an extraordinarily tense performance as Rothko’s enigmatic, intellectual assistant, even when the character is comfortable around Rothko to wash shirtless. With a lot of stage time but very few lines, Enoch appears to deliver his two main speeches as rehearsed “speeches”, rather than Molina’s effortless and genuine “off-the-cuff” ramblings. No knowledge of Rothko is required to make sense of the arguments between the two: Logan’s discursive-essay-turned-play will explain everything for you.
The music (Adam Cork) sounds like the soundtrack to Labyrinth turned into a midi-heavy PC game, a bizarre decision given the 1950s New York setting, and the play’s explicit portrayal of Rothko as a passionate lover of classical music. The play won six Tony Awards®️ in 2010; keep an eye on the Oliviers for this first major revival.
The two Alfs are painting in Red until 28 July 2018. A quarter of all tickets at every performance only £10.