A Room Full of Razorblades: John Logan's Red at MTC

Colin Friels as Mark Rothko in John Logan's RED

There is a moment late in John Logan’s Red, the story of the late expressionist painter Mark Rothko and a (fictional) assistant, Ken, where the script wants the audience and Ken to think something terrible has happened to Rothko. And yet somehow, in this production by the Melbourne Theatre Company, I was entirely unconvinced by the moment and unmoved by the possibility.

It’s not that the story lacks depth or the production lacks engaging performances. Both Colin Friels and Andre de Vanny are wonderful to watch – and the play is rich with ideas. Even if the notion that art should be inspirational and not just a commodity is a well-worn idea, the conflict in Logan’s play still makes the story interesting to listen to and with a strong lighting design (Matt Scott) and a beautiful sound design (Tristan Meredith), this production is beautiful visually and aurally.

But I wasn’t moved. I wasn’t inspired. It made me think but it never made me feel. And there are moments in the play – one towards the climax, which I alluded to already, and one early on, the priming of the canvas which should have been uplifting and exciting. It wasn’t. It’s like all the elements were there, but nothing quite clicked.

I do wonder if this show might have benefited from a more intimate theatre or a more intimate set. These characters are essentially stuck in a room together (not literally, but practically and emotionally), but the Sumner Theatre and the warehouse set made it feel the characters were almost lost up there in the empty space. The characters should have felt more like they were crawling all over each other rather than dancing around one another.

I admire director Alkinos Tsilimidos’ film work, his first feature Everynight, Everynight is a masterpiece. And I respect his close working relationship with Colin Friels, but I’m not sure a film director was the right choice here. The component elements seem to all be there, on stage, staring at us, but they don’t quite come together.

And there’s nothing more frustrating than seeing a missed opportunity on stage. What do I see when I see a production that doesn’t quite work? I see red.