RED – Lyric Theatre, Belfast

Writer: John Logan
Director: Emma Jordan
Reviewer: Colm G Doran


It is the title that frames this co-production by Prime Cut Productions and The Lyric, uttered by a spluttering Ken played by Thomas Finnegan in answer to the indomitable artist Mark Rothko played by Patrick O’Kane.  Moments before, the scene opens on a pensive Rothko surveying the audience, he spins to reveal the canvas at the focus of his gaze. There is only one word to sum up his work; the word that over the next 90 minutes will come to be ruthlessly analysed, poignantly revealed and viciously ripped apart by both men: ‘Red.’

Ciaran Bagnall’s hypnotic set captivates an audience from the outset; the art itself is a character that fills the Danske Bank, but the angular design of the studio roof draws in the gaze, the casters below every piece of furniture ensures there is constant movement and the classical music adds an undulating rhythm to the creative world. Everything fits. ‘Painting is movement ‘– Rothko barks at Ken during one of his many philosophical tirades that are so brilliant in their profundity that you feel simultaneously inspired and inadequate. If what Rothko says is true, the very play is itself a painting. Present are all the ingredients needed – there is passion in the loss felt keenly by both apprentice and master, there is hard work in the labour of creation and there is torture in the fear of irrelevancy. All of which are combined to create a complicated, moving piece of art.

Both performers complement each other throughout; in the opening Finnegan convincingly imbues Ken with paralysing uncertainty, fearing to venture answers let alone move freely, while O’Kane’s  Rothko takes pleasure in schooling his latest admirer in literature, philosophy and of course art. O’Kane brings an angular unpredictability to Rothko, wheeling around the stage in any direction without warning, even when he is stationary – he is never still. Finnegan is more static to begin with; awestruck at his surroundings and desperate to impress. However, this yields organically throughout to make way for a more assertive presence, by the close they face one another as equals.

It’s important to say that while the piece is deeply entrenched in philosophy and intellectualism, it is also incredibly funny. Under the leadership of Emma Jordan, both characters exhibit perfect timing throughout; even from the outset when Rothko is drilling Ken for his initial thoughts on the piece he is working on – positioning him correctly as if he were a chess piece, and ensuring he views the piece correctly While trying ironically not to force the moment; ‘let the painting do the work!’…(He stares blankly at Ken) before shouting: ‘Well work with it!’

It is hard to fault a piece that has as much ambition as Red, and then systematically succeeds in achieving everything it attempts. The setting and music are transportive, the characters are endlessly engaging and the writing is clever, poignant and humorous combined. This is a piece that like all good art cannot be truly appreciated through description alone, it must be seen and felt to be truly experienced.

Runs until 23 April 2017 | Image: Contributed

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