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A play with a message for our times

TIM WALKER gives five stars to Red at London’s Wyndham’s Theatre


Wyndham’s Theatre, London, until July 28

***** (FIVE STARS)

A great play talks to you because it talks to you about your own life. Red is such a play. It tells the story of how the brilliant, unconventional artist Mark Rothko took a young art student under his wing and helped him to develop both as a painter and as a human being.

The play is about a lot of things, but mostly the responsibility that the older generation has to the younger generation. It made me think of my debt to the late Anthony Howard, who gave me my first national newspaper job on the Observer. I see now that he taught me everything I know about journalism. I see, too, how little I could, as a man in my 20s, even have begun to understand a man in his 50s, at the stage he had then reached in his illustrious career.

Anyone who has had such a mentor will, I imagine, see a lot of that individual in Alfred Molina’s portrayal of Rothko. Challenging, pushing, trying to impart to his student a sense of judgment, he is always benign and intensely human.

They will also, I dare say, see something of their younger selves in Alfred Enoch’s student, trying desperately to cover up his insecurities, but wanting never to show himself up. Only when we are older, perhaps, can we look back on ourselves and acknowledge quite how unfinished as characters we were then.

John Logan’s play was first performed almost a decade ago. How depressing that in the intervening period the sacred trust that existed between the generations has all too often been broken. Harvey Weinstein is a symbol of that, and so, too, are the politicians who are now wilfully committing acts that will make the world a less civilised place for those that follow them.

This is a play not just about the generations, but also, of course, art. Rothko’s studio has been lovingly recreated by the set and costume designer Christopher Oram, right down to the smell of the paints. This adds to the poignancy. The first time I saw it, the country still supported the arts in a meaningful way. Today, the money is drying up as fast as the paint on Rothko’s canvases.

The director Michael Grandage has created a play of striking images. When the young man lowers the giant canvas, his mentor casts a shadow like Jesus on the cross, making the point he is the student’s saviour.

When the younger man washes the older man’s hands – ailing, towards the end of his life – it feels like a religious rite. Molina – seen most recently in Feud: Bette and Joan – delivers a performance of almost heart-rending intensity as Rothko. As his student, Enoch – Dean Thomas in the Harry Potter films – proves himself to be a proper, serious, grown-up stage actor.

The message? All we have to redeem us is kindness and art. Nothing else. It shows that the old have a great deal to learn, too, from the young. This a great play, with an urgent message for our sorry times.