Welcome to the Michael Grandage Company’s production of Red by John Logan
Under the watchful gaze of his young assistant, and the threatening presence of a new generation of artists, Mark Rothko takes on his greatest challenge yet: to create a definitive work for an extraordinary setting.
Based on the original Donmar Warehouse production, this new production of Red is the first ever UK revival since MGC Artistic Director Michael Grandage directed the premier in 2009. The production went on to win six Tony Awards including Best Play.
Award-winning stage and screen actor Alfred Molina reprises his critically acclaimed performance as the American abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko. He is joined by rising star Alfred Enoch, of US television drama series How to Get Away With Murder, as his assistant Ken.
Red reunites John Logan and Michael Grandage following Peter and Alice with Judi Dench and Ben Whishaw, which formed part of MGC’s inaugural season in the West End in 2013, and their feature film Genius.
‘The play is about two years in the life of Mark Rothko, the great abstract expressionist. It’s about the relationship between him and his assistant in the studio, and it’s most particularly about art in the biggest sense of the word - why art is important and why being serious about art is a good thing. The whole debate at the centre of John Logan’s play is about how you look at something, not just what you see, but what you discuss with yourself when you see it. It has this colossal debate in 90 minutes. We’re making a new production for the West End, responding to the world we are in now in 2018. It’s should feel like a response to the time we are living in now. We have a wonderful opportunity with Alfred Enoch, who’s taking the role of Ken, to look at the play in a very different way. So the whole thing is going to feel considerably different. The West End is the one place it hasn’t played and that’s why we want to do it.’ Michael Grandage, Artistic Director, MGC
New York, 1958.
Celebrated artist Mark Rothko is at the height of his fame having just accepted a commission to paint a series of murals for the exclusive Four Seasons Restaurant in the Seagram Building on Park Avenue. To help him in his work he’s employed a new assistant, Ken, himself an aspiring artist. Rothko plans to paint thirty or more canvases and then choose the ones that work best together. It’s a time-consuming process, one that requires careful deliberation.
As Rothko studies the paintings he questions Ken on his attitude to art and the young assistant, in turn, challenges the older artist’s perception of contemporary culture – contrasting Mozart with Chet Baker, Rothko with Andy Warhol. Rothko feels increasingly under threat from this new generation of artists – Jasper Johns, Frank Stella and Roy Lichtenstein – ready to replace him just as he and his contemporaries replaced the Cubists thirty years before.
Will Rothko and his paintings survive? How does an artist create a body of work that lives on? Perhaps the ‘Seagram Murals’ will be his lasting legacy, but is the venue the right setting for them? And are the clientele the right viewers?
Director - Michael Grandage
Set & Costume Designer - Christopher Oram
Lighting Designer - Neil Austin
Sound Designer - Adam Cork
Casting Director - Anne McNulty
Associate Director - Josh Seymour
Production Manager - Patrick Molony
Company & Stage Manager - Greg Shimmin
Deputy Stage Manager - Nicole Walker
Assistant Stage Manager - Rhiannon Harper
Costume Supervisor - Mary Charlton
Props Supervisor - Celia Strainge
Dialect Coach - Joan Washington
Head of Wardrobe - Charlotte Stidwell
Wardrobe Assistant - Helen Tams
John Logan received the Tony, Drama Desk, Outer Critic Circle and Drama League awards for his play Red. This play premiered at the Donmar Warehouse in London and at the Golden Theatre on Broadway. Since then Red has had more than 200 productions across the US and has been presented in over 30 countries. He is the author of more than a dozen other plays including Peter and Alice, I’ll Eat You Last: A Chat with Sue Mengers and Never the Sinner. He also co-wrote the book for the musical The Last Ship. As a screenwriter, Logan has been three times nominated for the Oscar and has received a Golden Globe, BAFTA, WGA, Edgar, and PEN Center award. His film work includes Skyfall, Spectre, Hugo, The Aviator, Gladiator, Rango, Alien: Covenant, Genius, Coriolanus, Sweeney Todd, The Last Samurai, Any Given Sunday and RKO 281. He created and produced the television series Penny Dreadful for Showtime.
Red by John Logan (Oberon, 2018)
The text of MGC’s 2018 production of the play at Wyndham’s Theatre
The following is a list of books about Mark Rothko, his life and work, and the culturalcontext of the play, which were in the rehearsal room for the original production in 2009:
The Artist’s Reality – Philosophies of Art by Mark Rothko (Yale University Press, 2004)
Writings on Art by Mark Rothko (Yale University Press, 2006)
Mark Rothko (Skira, 2007)
Mark Rothko (National Gallery of Art Washington/Yale Catalogue, 1998)
Rothko ed. by Achim Borchardt-Hume (Tate, 2008)
Mark Rothko – A Biography by James E.B. Breslin (University of Chicago Press, 1993)
The Legacy of Mark Rothko by Lee Seldes (Da Capo Press, 1996)
Mark Rothko in New York by Diane Waldham (Guggenheim Museum, 1994)
Seeing Rothko ed. by Glenn Phillips and Thomas Crow (Getty Publications, 2005)
Fifties Forever – Popular Fashions for Men, Women, Boys and Girls by Roseann Ettinger (Schiffer, 1998)
Fashionable Clothing from the Sears Catalogs Late 1950s by Joy Shih (Schiffer, 1997)
Young Chet by William Claxton (Schirmer Art Books, 1993)
American painter, 50s or older
‘He wears thick glasses and old, ill-fitting clothes spattered with specks of glue and paint.’ A temperamental man with strong opinions, especially about art, his volatility hides a vulnerability - the fear of becoming redundant and ultimately being replaced.
Rothko’s new assistant, 20s
A thoughtful young man with a troubled past, he’s an aspiring artist eager to learn more. Nervous at first around Rothko, Ken slowly grows in confidence and is ultimately able to challenge the older man.
Associate Director Josh Seymour provides a week-by-week summary of rehearsals for Red
Our initial week of rehearsals consists of making a first sweep of the play, moving speedily and allowing us to discover its general shape and begin asking questions to inform the detailed work that lies ahead. We begin our first day with a ‘Meet and Greet’, a chance for the full cast and Creative Team to be introduced to each other before rehearsals begin in earnest.
As we begin our first pass of the play’s five scenes, we notice the significance and eloquence of the moments of silence that Michael weaves into the action. The two characters, Mark Rothko and his new assistant, Ken, are both highly articulate, fast-thinking individuals, and the play’s dialogue is pacy and dense. The moments when we see the characters hunt for the right words to express what they think or feel gain more power because of their contrast with the verbose action around them. Similarly, the moments when the characters exist in silence – for example, when Ken is cleaning up the mess caused when Rothko has an explosion of rage – are filled with as much texture and clarity as when the characters are speaking, and allow the audience to witness the business of life taking place within an artist’s studio.
Whilst moving through the scenes, we stop each time a factual question emerges to research the answer - for example, who the painters are that Rothko refers to - or if there is a historical reference which we aren’t sure of. We stick up images on the rehearsal room walls – the work of other artists of the time to help remind us of the context in which Rothko sits, providing us with visual references to things which are mentioned in the text.
We also spend time working on the scene changes, which need to be precisely choregraphed to Adam Cork’s compositions. These scene changes function as the glue that holds the scenes together and provide a visual illustration of time passing. They also show the growing familiarity between Rothko and Ken, as Ken’s employment in Rothko’s studio continues across the months. As the timings of actions corresponding with musical shifts require careful specificity, and the scene changes are physically complex, we practise them several times across the week. This lets actors start to absorb them into their muscle memory and move towards Michael’s stated aim of having the scene changes look natural and effortless, despite their true complexity.
We end the week with our first attempt at the play’s central priming sequence, where Rothko and Ken prepare a canvas in advance of Rothko beginning to paint it in earnest. We workshop a kind of choreography where Alfred Molina and Alfred Enoch, playing Rothko and Ken, are tasked with physically responding to each other’s movements in the quest to cover the entirety of the canvas as efficiently as possible. We film this first attempt and watch it back as a group, discussing how the method of priming can be improved, before letting the paint-covered actors head off for a good wash and a well-earned weekend.
In our second week of rehearsals we build on the skeleton we created for the scenes last week. We move through them in greater detail to fill every moment with clarity, asking questions to allow us to understand the characters and their situations more deeply. For example, when Ken arrives for his first day as Rothko’s assistant, we ask whether Ken would know what Rothko looks like before he meets him, and whether he would therefore be able to recognise him when he gets to the studio? In 1958 there’s no Google for him to search for his new boss’ photo! We decide that Ken, being keenly interested in contemporary art, would have seen a photo of Rothko in an art trade magazine and would therefore be able to identify his new boss when he arrives. These kind of questions, employing the imagination and inventiveness of actors and director alike, form a large part of rehearsals and are key in making it such an enjoyable and creative space.
As the week goes on, we begin to think about how what we are creating in the rehearsal room will translate to the larger space we will eventually occupy at the Wyndhams. Michael discusses the importance of gradually building the physical and vocal energy required to carry the scenes so that we arrive in the theatre ready to fill the space, rather than being deceived by the more intimate environment of the rehearsal room. We are also fortunate to have practical lighting set up in the space, which was a key component of Rothko’s studio and how he desired his work to be viewed. Rothko had highly specific opinions about the correct positioning of light for his work to be best observed and created, and so this usefully provides the true atmosphere of the space for the actors to inhabit.
We spend more time on the complex priming sequence, honing it to try and discover the ideal combination of randomness and synchronicity. As the actors get more fluent with their dialogue, we discuss the importance of holding onto the immediacy and in-the-moment discovery of what they are saying. The element of frustration which actors naturally experience before they have fully learned their lines can actually be helpful in creating the experience of characters searching for the right words, especially in the kind of messy arguments which form a significant part of our play. We focus on one particular confrontation, where Rothko and Ken battle for ownership over the many associations of the word ‘red’, and look at how we can keep this section moving at the speed of genuine thought, remembering the characters are discovering their ideas for the first time.
We end the week having explored two-thirds of the play in careful detail, with a robust architecture that will stand us in good stead as we move into the climactic sections of the play next week.
During our third week of rehearsals we move through the entire play again, our work becoming increasingly precise and specific. As we arrive at each scene we remind ourselves of the month and date in which we decided it takes place. This allows us to reconsider whether we have located the scene at the ideal chronological moment for the characters, given the development of the relationship between Ken and Rothko that takes place throughout the play, and so serves as a useful opportunity to check-in with the shape of the story our production is telling.
Now that the actors are more confident and familiar with the text, we are able to start working in minutely calibrated detail. For example, we identify a line in a debate between Ken and Rothko where a tiny change of inflection from the actor transforms it from feeling like the ending of a conversation to a line which is keeping the energy alive and dynamic, and therefore keeping the audience connected to the shifts in the conversation. The actors also have to tackle the challenge of conveying the speed of their characters’ thoughts. As Rothko and Ken are hyper-articulate, intelligent people, the actors need to be utterly confident with their dialogue and the thoughts behind each line in order to inhabit the phenomenal pace at which both of the characters think. The more we interrogate the characters’ debates and get to the root of what they are saying and feeling, the more within reach this complex task feels.
Towards the end of the week we have our first full runthrough. This provides a useful marker of where we are in the process and allows the actors to have their first physical experience of the play’s shape. It provides us with some useful insights to help shape the production further. In the final scene, Michael instructs the actors not to play the end before it happens - Rothko makes a significant decision here and it is important that Ken doesn’t know it’s coming or the reason for it. This note unlocks the dramatic energy of the scene and brings the shifts in the characters’ relationship into sharper focus.
In seeing the play in its entirety for the first time, we also notice that the audience might interpret Rothko’s studio to be a place purely of seriousness and academic debate. Michael encourages Alfie, as Ken, to show us his character enjoying the moments when Rothko makes jokes, indicating to the audience that the studio can also be a place of amusement and amiability. This is useful for providing an extra flavour within the production’s texture, enhancing the contrast with the moments of gravity. This seemingly small note, which sends ripples throughout the entire fabric of the production, is one of the many detailed discoveries we make in our penultimate week of rehearsals.
Our final week in the rehearsal room is spent consolidating the discoveries of the previous weeks and preparing the production for its impending transition to our new home at Wyndham’s Theatre. We spend the first few days working through the play one last time, linking sections together to help the actors with their sense of flow and stopping to remind ourselves of discoveries we made in the previous week so that we’re able to continue implementing them with focus.
We make new discoveries. For example, we all agree a debate in Scene Three has begun to feel a little like a ‘set piece’. We experiment with ways to make it feel more integrated within the action of the scene, breaking up the conversation by interspersing it with routine work of the studio, such as stapling a canvas as it is prepared. This transforms the sequence into a debate that takes place within the life of the studio, springing naturally from the actions of the characters. This exercise also helps the actors realise they can never relax with this text – they must really stay ‘on it’ and engaged so that the emotions and passions that the characters feel about what they are debating remain on the surface. This will be crucial in helping the audience to connect with the more intellectually demanding sections of dialogue.
In the second half of the week we do several runthroughs of the entire play with members of the Creative Team and staff from the theatre in attendance. They act as a useful test audience for us, giving the actors their first sense of how an audience will respond to the rhythms of the play and suggesting changes we might make. We notice, for example, a particular argument seems to lose tension in front of our first audience and so we discuss how best to maintain the stakes of this section by defining what it means to both of our characters.
Viewing the production as a whole through the eyes of these mini-audiences lets us analyse the effect of our scene changes further. Michael is keen that they are integrated into the narrative so that the audience feels the developing relationship and the passing of time within these transitions. We discover that increasing the amount of eye-contact between the actors within the transitions, and taking more time to look at the paintings after they have hung them, has a significant effect in making these sequences a continuation of the story rather than an interruption.
Each runthrough offers new questions and ideas. Michael identifies John Logan’s repeated use of the word ‘place’ after hearing it recur throughout a run - for Rothko, the idea of a ‘place’ where his work can live and be contemplated has a profoundly spiritual resonance. This provokes the actors to consider their characters’ use of the word, which has powerful and clear results during the next run. We end the week feeling ready and eager to move into the theatre – confident in the progress and decisions we have made in the rehearsal room and aware of the exciting challenges ahead, which a new space and new audiences will bring.
Technical rehearsals are where all the elements of the show finally come together to form a cohesive whole: light, sound, set, costumes and the theatre space itself now need to be integrated with what we have created in the rehearsal room over the past month.
‘Tech’ can be a stressful period, especially in the creation of a brand new show, which throws up all kinds of challenges while the Creative Team try to make the production come together in a short space of time. Fortunately the Red tech is relaxed and productive as the majority of the team have worked on the show before. Instead of the usual aim of tech - trying to work out how the various elements of a production fit together – we’re able to usefully spend our time rediscovering and refining a structure for the show, which the Creative Team already knows works. This enables us to work in detail from early on and move through the tech with real efficiency.
We spend time making sure the space enables the actors to do all they need to in the action of the play. For example, we move the tarpaulin used in priming the canvas to the other side of the stage in order to give more space in the place where it was originally located, as that area is where we keep the paint buckets and the actors were beginning to find it a little crowded now that we’re in the theatre. We also focus on the scene changes, ensuring that the timings of the movements are adapted for the new space. Composer Adam Cork and Lighting Designer Neil Austin work closely together to ensure they are helping tell the story of the scene changes in synchronicity with each other - for example, ensuring that the moment when the actors lower a painting coincides with a particular musical note and the dimming of the lights, as if the painting has been ‘deactivated’.
Tech moves speedily and so we are able to have two dress rehearsals before our first preview. These are highly beneficial for the Creative Team - a chance to identify and iron-out remaining issues before our first audience joins us. They’re also extremely useful for the actors, who use the ‘dresses’ to get a sense of the vocal energy required to fill the space and also as opportunities to practice their quick changes with the help of our excellent Wardrobe Team.
The first preview is both a relieving and exhilarating experience. After weeks of telling the story to the same small group of people, the actors have a full, responsive audience to laugh at the jokes and discover the story for the first time. Over the course of the next week of previews we continue to hone our work, analysing the audience response, rehearsing in the afternoon while performing the show at night. The presence of the audience helps us pick out, for example, several moments where a pause is being held just a little longer than is necessary and where picking up the pace would be more helpful dramatically. We identify a few moments where blocking needs to be adjusted due to sightline issues - for example, we realise that when Ken first enters and awaits instructions from Rothko, he cannot be seen by some members of the audience on the far left of the auditorium. Michael gives Alfie a new position to move to so that the entire audience is able to access the story of Ken’s arrival in his new workplace.
After a week and a half of previews, during which the production grows in confidence each day, the team celebrate with a joyful Press Night - the final time that everyone is together before the creatives move on to new projects and the actors and show staff look forward to the run ahead.
Education Associate Dominic Francis provides an insight into the cast and Creative Team’s rehearsal process for Red
It’s the first day of rehearsals for MGC’s new production of Red by John Logan and the cast and Creative Team gather in the high-ceilinged Sunday school at Union Chapel in Islington. There are many familiar faces. Alongside director Michael Grandage is Alfred Molina, who played artist Mark Rothko in the original production at the Donmar Warehouse in 2009, plus the same Creative Team and members of Stage Management - the latter hugely experienced in creating the on-stage environment of Rothko’s studio, with its large canvas frames and working gas stove complete with bubbling pots of primer.
The old team members are joined by new ones, not least Alfred Enoch who plays Ken, Rothko’s assistant, and Michael welcomes everyone to the start of four weeks’ rehearsals, followed by the move to Wyndham’s Theatre for a three-month run. John Logan’s play, he suggests, is even more important today than nine years ago, in terms of what it has to say about the value of art to society – ‘We always have to make a case for the arts.’
The welcome and introductions over, those members of the wider team not immediately involved in rehearsals leave and Michael, the cast and Stage Management settle down to work. Michael proposes they start with a readthrough, which he comments he doesn’t normally do as ‘they’re not a level playing field’ but he knows both actors have done sufficient preparation and are ready. He asks Company Stage Manager, Greg Shimmin, to help him show Fred and Alfie around the stage, which is marked-up on the rehearsal room floor, indicating where the walls and doorways are. This will be useful, he says, in terms of orientating themselves during the readthrough. It’s noted that there’s no model-box of the set as so many of its actual elements still exist and are already in the room.
Rothko set up studios in a variety of venues throughout his career, explains Michael. For the Seagram Murals, the paintings at the centre of the play, the artist converted a basketball court for this purpose. Standing in this imagined environment, Michael says to the two actors, ‘Crucially, I want to invite both of you to create a space in which you can look at any picture’. He indicates the ‘walls’ on which the paintings-in-progress hang, eventually pointing downstage towards the auditorium. ‘We never break the fourth wall,’ he states. ‘We need to establish this language now.’
Michael turns his attention to a large metal scaffold upstage. ‘This is the key prop that will dominate most of our show. It’s the frame that Rothko hangs his canvases on to work.’ He acknowledges the fourth wall again: ‘We must believe there’s an identical one there.’ He highlights the importance of the scene changes, an integral part of which is composer Adam Cork’s music. ‘We need to keep setting up a new scene, to tell the story that time has moved on, by hanging a new canvas on the frame’. This is the only blocking that Michael specifically wants to set. He and Fred refer to the ‘choreography’ of moving the frame – ‘We treated it as a dance,’ says Michael. The music is key to this, he observes, commenting to Alfie, ‘It’s a great road map for Ken’.
Having consulted the cast and agreed that he will read only the essential stage-directions, to set the scenes and provide context, Michael begins the readthrough. Without any music or movement it takes just over an hour and afterwards, having congratulated both actors, Michael says he has lots of questions and suggests they take a short break before coming back to discuss them.
Revisiting Red nearly a decade on Michael notes new resonances for him personally: ‘It’s a play about something I’m very passionate about, this idea of mentorship - an older person with a certain amount of knowledge, which a younger person wants to learn as soon as possible. I used to think it was a simple, one-way process: teacher and student, father and son. This play really nails it. In a true mentor-mentee relationship it should be a two-way process.’ And it’s a process that can be unnerving for the teacher-father. ‘You have to embrace the idea that someone will eventually destroy your work and make something new. What’s dead is when the assistant just wants to be like their mentor.’
Michael reflects on what Rothko and Ken learn from one another through the course of the play. At first, he suggests, the artist appears to take very little from his assistant, but by the end of their time together he clearly has. What does Ken learn in return? Fred thinks Rothko passes on a methodology, observing that the young man is preoccupied by two things: the death of his parents and the mentoring relationship with Rothko.
‘For us, as an audience, we need to believe that Ken could become another Andy Warhol,’ says Michael. He also thinks the opposite is equally valid. ‘Wouldn’t it be just as good if Ken went on to live a meaningful life as a result of his relationship with Rothko? He doesn’t have to be famous. That’s a central message of the play.’ Michael acknowledges that unlike the character of Rothko, who’s based upon a real person, Ken is more of a fictional character. ‘There’s a lot of unknowns to this play, which you have to make up,’ he suggests to Alfie. For example, who is Ken talking to on the telephone at the start of Scene Three? ‘You can invent that.’
Briefly outlining his approach to rehearsals, Michael begins by saying, ‘I’d like to encourage all of us in this room to think there’s absolutely no such thing as a stupid question’. He explains that Josh Seymour, the Associate Director, will start to compile facts. For example: What’s a ‘charnel house’? What are ‘persimmons’? Josh will gather images of Henri Matisse, Jackson Pollock and anyone else, or thing, mentioned in the play that the team think it would be useful to have. (Fred asks for a photo of an Oldsmobile Convertible, which Rothko refers to in relation to Pollock.) Michael says they’ll also need to get a copy of Rembrandt’s painting Belshazzar’s Feast, which Rothko discusses in Scene Three. Fred recalls that he sought additional help with the pronunciation of the Hebrew in Rothko’s lines, ‘Mene, Mene, Tekel, Umpharsin’, meaning, ‘You have been weighed in the balance and have been found wanting’.
Michael asks Greg whether the cast can smoke real cigarettes on stage as the rules and regulations governing this can vary. Stage Management say they’ll seek clarification while Fred recalls smoking low-tar cigarettes for the original production. Fred also asks for Rothko’s glasses to contain his own prescription lenses for ease. There’s a brief discussion about wigs, but as with the original production these will be dispensed with as they were found to get covered in paint. Instead, Fred will have a shaved head as before. Michael refers to photographs and recordings of Rothko that may be of use.
‘Here’s the way I like to try and work,’ says Michael. ‘I like to do a light sketching of the whole piece by the end of week one, but nothing needs to be set in stone. It means that by the time you get to the weekend, looking through the script you can recall where you were. Another reason to get it on its feet as soon as possible is to try things physically.’ He adds that he doesn’t need the actors off book in this first week and won’t introduce music – Composer Adam Cork’s score – until later, commenting that it will become like a ‘third character’.
Michael questions the date at the start of the play: ‘First of all, what year was the Seagram’s commission? We can come up with a timeline of what was going on globally.’ This would begin in 1958 and end in 1960, the time-span of the play. Michael suggests they play around with the timeline, as Shakespeare does in many of his history plays.
This initial discussion over, they start work ‘up on their feet’ on the first scene of the play. ‘Michael, do you want to do the same pre-set as before?’ asks Fred, which involves Rothko sitting in a chair, smoking a cigarette, contemplating one of his paintings. ‘Go up to the canvas and engage with it,’ suggests Michael. ‘Here’s what we need to achieve - you have to show ownership over it.’ They run the first scene, all the way through Ken’s first entrance and his introduction to Rothko, the artist’s studio and, in particular, his work.
‘Great,’ says Michael afterwards. ‘So why don’t we define that.’ By which he means go back over the scene and clarify its various moments and turning-points. They discuss how Rothko wanted his paintings to be viewed. ‘He apparently recommended standing eighteen inches from the canvas,’ says Fred. Looking at the moment when Rothko instructs Ken where to stand in relation to the paintings, Michael encourages Fred to ‘put the pressure on him more’ to lean into the canvas.
‘I’m doing all the old moves, is that OK?’ Fred asks Michael. Michael suggests trying things differently. For example, rather than looking at the painting upstage with his back to the audience, Michael asks Fred to look out at the audience, the fourth wall acting as the canvas. ‘It’s an interesting exercise this,’ comments Michael. ‘It’s a less subversive piece of staging as it helps us to see the actors’ faces.’ However, it’s problematic when Rothko shines a light on the painting as it’s directly in the face of the audience. ‘Both versions have merits,’ observes Michael, ‘but I think I prefer the original’ – Rothko looking at the canvas upstage.
It’s the beginning of the second week of rehearsals and at the start of the day Stage Management are busy setting up the rehearsal room, positioning paintings and lights and checking everything is in place. The canvases themselves are numbered for ease of identification as they represent the Seagram Murals at different stages of completion. Some are simple primed canvases, covered in a base-coat of red paint, while others begin to show the outlines of Rothko’s characteristic rectangular shapes. Company Stage Manager, Greg Shimmin, describes this version of the staging as closer to the New York run eight years ago, where it changed slightly following the first performances at the Donmar Warehouse in 2009 and 2010.
Fred and Alfie run lines and discuss blocking over a cup of tea, both of them trying to be off-book as much as possible from this week on. Meanwhile the Deputy Stage Manager, Nicole Walker, and Assistant Stage Manager, Rhiannon Harper, get the record-player to work, then Rhiannon moves around the set crossing things off a checklist. Also in the room are the understudies, Ian Drysdale and Sam Perry, to observe rehearsals. They have separate sessions with Associate Director, Josh Seymour, on Fridays, who’s been busy putting various visual references on the wall.
Ready to start, Michael welcomes everyone to the room and thanks Stage Management for preparing the space. Fred asks Michael if he wants Alfie and him to start working with all of the props today? Michael says yes. Fred’s also keen to rehearse the scene changes and Michael asks Stage Management for the music to be played in wherever possible – ‘Now that we’ve heard it all.’ They’re starting again from the top of the play. ‘What I’d like to do from today is just start asking more questions,’ says Michael.
Fred gets into position for the opening, sitting in Rothko’s chair. ‘Am I further away than ever before?’ he asks. Stage Management consult their notes and make sure the chair is in the correct position. Michael seeks to clarify the setting of the scene, asking Josh, ‘Can you give us a date?’ It’s August 1958. Fred wonders what time of the morning it is. ‘I like the idea that it’s still early and that you’re drinking,’ says Michael. ‘That’s helpful.’ He reflects a moment then suggests: ‘Let’s say this so we’ve got something down in our books, we can always change it later. Let’s say you’ve arrived at 9am in August 1958 – we should pick a date later – and that you’ve changed and set up the space.’ He prepares the actors to run the scene, commenting on the timing of the opening in terms of Rothko contemplating the paintings and Ken’s arrival – ‘You’re in charge of this moment.’ Referring to the accompanying music, Michael says Stage Management will respond to the actors – ‘Nicole will go off you.’
They run the scene, following which Michael says, ‘Very good. Let’s just go back there, there are a couple of things I want to look at’. He gives a general note about filling in the gaps in the text: ‘You need to add in your head the bits of sentences that aren’t there so it tells more of a story.’ Looking at the first line of the play, Rothko’s question to Ken about his paintings - ‘What do you see?’ – Michael says to Fred: ‘Help us make this very first beat specific. I’ll tell you why, because your entire focus in this play is making Ken be specific, so make sure you’re being specific in this moment.’ He turns to Alfie: ‘Have the moment where you find Mark Rothko.’ Michael wonders how Ken would recognise the artist in this pre-internet era? Images of celebrated figures weren’t as readily available then. Where would Ken have got access to a photograph of Rothko? After some discussion they decide he might have seen the artist’s photo in an exhibition catalogue.
Michael makes other small adjustments before running the scene again, asking DSM Nicole to play the music once Fred gets to a standing position rather than as soon as he stands. Having run the scene, Michael says, ‘That was much better, that was great. The only alteration I’d invite you to make…’ And he makes some suggestions for tightening the staging, or changing the emphasis on a particular word or phrase.
He focuses especially on Rothko’s guidance to Ken about how to interact with his paintings. ‘You’re here, it’s now and you need to lean into it,’ Michael suggests the artist is saying to his new assistant. ‘Everything is an instruction.’ As they re-run the scene, or specific moments from it, Michael watches from different angles, picking up on certain lines. ‘What is that?’ he asks Fred, in relation to Rothko’s comment to Ken, ‘Be specific. No, be exact’. ‘Is that you not happy with your own word?’ He considers Rothko’s reaction to Ken’s response about liking his work – ‘Of course you like it – how can you not like it?!’ He asks Fred: ‘So what did Ken do wrong there for you? He could have said, “Let me think about it” as he does later.’
In terms of Ken’s reaction, Michael thinks it works best when Alfie is completely still and doesn’t even move his head. He wonders what Ken’s thoughts are regarding the ideas that Rothko expresses at this point: ‘A generation that does not aspire to seriousness, to meaning, is unworthy to walk in the shadow of those who have gone before, I mean those who have struggled and surmounted, I mean those who have aspired, I mean Rembrandt, I mean Turner, I mean Michelangelo and Matisse… I mean obviously Rothko.’
‘Now you agree with all of these artists?’ Michael asks Alfie. ‘Do you agree with his theory that they’ve “surmounted”? Is it absolutely ridiculous that he adds Rothko to the list?’ Fred has a view on this concerning Rothko: ‘I think he believed in his own aspiration.’ They also note that the line has a deliberately comic effect, although Michael still thinks it comments on the artist’s outlook: ‘It can be both, can’t it? Technically it can be a gag in the text while also serving Rothko’s belief.’
They run the opening scene again, both actors off book, and Michael comments on their progress so far - ‘You charted your way through there,’ then adds, ‘there are a couple of questions I have.’ He turns to Alfie, referring to Ken’s assertion, ‘I aspire to… painting’: ‘It’s not a good enough answer. He’s already told you to be specific with your words and you haven’t. It’d be quite good to see you failing here.’
Having run the scene again, Michael congratulates Fred and Alfie: ‘Both of you, that was really good. There was a duel nature to it. It gives us somewhere to go. You, Ken, got a sense of the weight of the man, Rothko, his intellect.’ He considers the interview element of the scene – Ken is there to hopefully become Rothko’s new assistant – and the artist’s speech outlining the main responsibilities of the job, ending with, ‘And anything else I want, any whim, no matter how demanding or demeaning’. Michael reflects, ‘That was the moment that the terms and conditions of your employment were laid out’. Until then Ken doesn’t know whether he’s got the job.
Michael asks those other members of the team present what they think of Rothko’s behavior in this scene as a prospective employer. Is there anything inappropriate? People comment on the artist’s use of the word ‘demeaning’ in addition to his smoking and drinking in the work place. Michael makes the following observation of the new production: ‘Everyone will be watching it through a different lens. I am sitting here being a different audience to the one nine years ago. It’s a very subtle shift in terms of what might get a response, what might get a laugh.’
He also considers the changing nature of language. ‘I’m intrigued by that term “like” (Rothko’s speech: ‘Of course you like it – how can you not like it?! Everyone likes everything nowadays’), it means something different now.’ Michael focuses on this particular moment with Fred: ‘Just go back over that speech. The whole thing can become…’ He thinks of the right word and Fred suggests, ‘It felt a little automatic?’ Michael recommends allowing certain moments to breathe. Having run it again, he comments afterwards, ‘You absolutely, without doing too much, let the scene have air’.
Each time they run the scene Michael focuses on different moments, this time Rothko’s fierce questioning of Ken’s wider reading: ‘Byron? Wordsworth? Aeschylus? Turgenev? Sophocles? Schopenhauer? Shakespeare? Hamlet? At least Hamlet, please God! Quote me Hamlet. Right now.’ He likes the playing of this and encourages Fred to push it even further: ‘That was good that exchange. I would love you to turn up the heat on that demand, turn up Shakespeare.’ The actors then run a short exchange – ‘Who’s your favorite painter?’ - with DSM Nicole following closely on book to make sure they get the words absolutely right.
After a short break, Michael and the actors continue work on the opening scene. Fred strives to give thought to each word in Rothko’s long speeches (‘You have a lot to learn young man. Philosophy. Theology. Literature. Poetry…’), otherwise he’s concerned that ‘it sounds like a list’. Michael questions the actors about certain words, seeking to find the meaning behind them, asking Fred about Rothko’s probing of Ken: ‘Is your “tragic” what you want his “sad” to be?’ Fred thinks the artist is happy with his new assistant’s first impressions of his work: ‘I think Rothko thinks, “Good, he’s getting it”.’ Michael encourages Alfie to take longer looking at the paintings: ‘It’s a nice opportunity for us to get to know Ken. We’re only on page nine of the play.’
He considers Rothko’s description of his paintings. ‘The fact that they’re like “doom” is good for you?’ Michael asks Fred. Referring to Rothko’s line, ‘look and they are there, inescapable and inexorable’, he asks Josh for a dictionary definition of ‘inexorable’. Fred says he interprets it as unavoidable. ‘Here’s the interesting thing,’ says Fred, ‘within a few lines Rothko refers to three religious places – a chapel, a “place of communion” and a temple.’ The revelation that the paintings are actually intended for a restaurant is a powerful dramaturgical moment in the play.
They focus on Rothko’s description of the paintings: ‘My first murals… Imagine a frieze all around the room, a continuous narrative filling the walls, one to another, each a new chapter, the story unfolding…’ Again, Michael is keen to clarify different terms: ‘What makes a mural a mural as opposed to a painting?’ And later: ‘Can we have a definition of “frieze” now as well.’ Fred considers the fundamentals of the line: ‘That’s the key, “a continuous narrative”. In a way it’s the Stations of the Cross.’ Michael agrees: ‘Yes, that’s a very kind way of describing it.’
Rothko’s fee for the Seagram Murals is discussed - $35,000 in the late 1950s is the equivalent of over $2 million today. Michael and the actors consider different cultures’ attitude towards money and success. ‘Brits would generally prefer a critical hit to a commercial one, but Americans would want it the other way round,’ comments Michael. ‘They’re smart, though, they can turn a commercial hit into a critical one.’
They practice the scene change from one to two, during which Rothko and Ken move the large metal scaffold, swapping the canvases that hang upon it. Michael reminds Fred that Ken is still new to Rothko and his way of working: ‘Don’t assume that he knows what to do, you have to show him.’ Having run it once, Stage Management re-set the space so they can do it again.
Looking at the start of Scene Two, in particular Ken’s reference to a Picasso exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, Michael says to Alfie: ‘You can give yourself some time there because there’s stuff to do – eating food, the record-player’s still playing…’ Michael considers Rothko’s speech about his paintings: ‘Look at the tension between the blocks of color… They abut each other on the actual canvas, so too do they abut each other in your eye.’ He’s curious about the artist’s choice of words: ‘What’s the meaning of “abut”?’ He thinks an audience might need this particular word to be picked out – ‘You can help us there.’
Michael acknowledges the development in Rothko and Ken’s relationship from Scene One to Two – the stage-directions tell us, ‘Months have passed and he (Ken) is more comfortable here’. Michael observes: ‘You’ve moved the conversational tone up while still being confrontational.’ The artist and his assistant engage on a deeper level, discussing various artists and their work. He counsels the actors to plot their way through the conversations – ‘Where’s your discussion taking you? Take us through it a tiny bit more.’ Michael thinks this especially important when Rothko is explaining his working process to Ken.
Taking this note the actors run the scene again and Michael thinks it clearer, commenting to Fred: ‘What helped was checking-in with Ken more – “Are you getting this?” – because we follow with you. We get it partly through it being explained to Ken and partly through Ken understanding it.’
After lunch they return to Scene Two and Michael concentrates on Ken’s speech about the difference between abstract and representational painting - ‘Representational pictures are unchanging; they don’t require the active participation of the viewer. In the Louvre in the middle of the night the “Mona Lisa” is still smiling.’ Michael says to Alfie: ‘Let Ken really work his way through it. Give yourself time in the moment, in the words, to think through it. Take a little bit more time to find the Louvre moment so it comes to you, you find it.’
He then turns his attention to Rothko’s speech about Caravaggio’s painting Conversion of Saul - ‘He gives it inner luminosity. It lives…’ Michael considers its purpose: ‘The entire speech here is to let Ken, and us, know about what Rothko is trying to do – to illuminate his paintings from within.’ He asks Fred, as Rothko, ‘Was it after this that you became the painter you are now?’
Michael’s keen to ensure that any references to other artists or works of art have a purpose within the play, to further the story and develop the characters’ relationships, commenting to Fred: ‘This is true of all the illustrations you find – give Ken something with it, don’t make it nice.’ He gives a similar note with reference to Rothko’s description of The Red Studio by Matisse: ‘Just know why you want to communicate the story about Matisse’s painting. You, Rothko, have learnt that Ken is worth your opinion, telling him about the painting.’ As a general note to both actors, Michael comments, ‘You still need to create the reasons to talk’.
Fred thinks Rothko’s allusions to other artists and paintings reveal his insecurities about his own work, in particular his latest commission: ‘What’s released is Rothko’s own fear about whether he’s able to do this.’ Taking the scene as a whole, Michael reflects, ‘It’s a beautifully observed scene of a man with a temper and a passion at the same time’. Of the moment when Rothko’s anger erupts and he shouts at Ken, throwing paint at his assistant, Michael suggests, ‘I think it’s quite helpful if this is the first time this has happened’.
Running the scene again, Michael particularly enjoys Rothko and Ken’s duel over the various examples of red, commenting on the similarities and difference between the two men – ‘They share a colour but they don’t share a temperament.’ He looks at the escalating words between them: ‘I’d love both of you to build, build, build so you get to, “Santa Clause / Satan”.’ Michael adds to Ken: ‘You’ve got to meet his aggression with your nicer images.’
Before running a scene Michael might comment to the actors, ‘One thing you should try next time…’ and suggests, for example, a different emphasis. He regards running a scene as an opportunity to embed all the discoveries made so far: ‘I’d like to run that to consolidate all those notes.’ However, he stresses the fact that at this early stage the exploration still continues: ‘I might remind you this isn’t a runthrough so we can stop if we want to, but start to feel the rhythm of the scene.’ Afterwards he’ll give more notes: ‘Just a few little things that I’d like to try next time. There are a few tonal shifts to get us from one thing to another. It’s about a different energy.’
Looking ahead in the rehearsal process, Michael’s conscious of the transition from the rehearsal room to the theatre: ‘There’s a danger with this play in this room - I would like to encourage us to get slightly bigger with the piece each week so that we’re almost too big by the end of rehearsals in this room, so we’re ready for a bigger space.’
They’re making good progress and towards the end of the day they look at the transition from Scene Two into Three. Michael and the actors walk and talk their way through this long scene change, running the transition a couple of times. At the start of Scene Three, Ken enters the empty studio carrying a package wrapped in brown paper. Michael considers Ken’s handling of the package so that the audience’s attention is drawn towards it – ‘Just enough to make us think, “What’s that?”.’ He’s also keen that the scene change, in which Ken sets up the studio to prepare a canvas, is active: ‘I want you to keep it alive, opening the trestle table with the breath in the music.’
Drawing the day’s rehearsal to a close, Michael is clearly pleased with the progress they’ve made so far: ‘The shape of that scene is in a really good place. You’ve taken everything I said and already started consolidating, making such strides that I’m giving you week three notes in week two. This is in a very good place to come back and talk through tone and nuance.’
It’s the start of the third week of rehearsals and several changes are discernable in the rehearsal room - from Fred’s shaved head, to more closely resemble Rothko, to an even greater concentration. Michael refers to the fact that they’re ‘heading into the middle of our rehearsal period’ and he proposes certain modifications to the space to prepare for the transition to the theatre, including drawing the curtains to give a greater impression of being in a darkened studio.
They start with the end of Scene Three, moving into Scene Four, concentrating on Rothko’s speech about Rembrandt’s painting Belshazzar’s Feast. ‘You choose to tell this story to get him (Ken) to stay, why?’ Michael asks Fred. Fred thinks it’s the closest Rothko comes to an apology, following his earlier outburst at Ken. ‘Are you saying you’ve fallen short as an artist – “You have been weighed in the balance and have been found wanting”?’ questions Michael. Is Rothko’s preoccupation with black - or rather ‘the absence of light… Like going dead’ – ‘about failing, falling short, not working hard enough, being too arrogant?’ Is this the example of Belshazzar, King of Babylon? Arrogance? Or a king who’s failed in his position?
Michael says to Fred: ‘You, Rothko, talk a lot about what makes a great artist but not so much about what makes a great human-being.’ He recalls the artists he has known in his own life and reflects that many of them were arrogant, although possibly this was an act of self-preservation - ‘Artists have to have an ultimate belief-system.’ They are different to playwrights, for example, as ultimately playwrights have to hand their work over to directors and actors. ‘There’s this thing hanging over all our heads,’ says Michael, ‘of being found out.’ An artist’s legacy relies heavily upon the people entrusted to manage it, he says, commenting that Rothko’s children maintained a ‘great estate’: ‘Unless the people who come after you manage your estate well your reputation can decline, even disappear.’
They continue by rehearsing the choreography of the scene change from Scene Three into Four. Michael wants to ensure they’re ‘getting the beats right’. He refers to a loop in the score, which has a separate cue, that would enable any delays in the transition to be covered by music. ‘I hate calling them “scene changes”,’ says Michael. ‘They’re definitely other scenes – time is moving on, weeks have passed, you’re changing, Ken’s voice is changing. I’d suggest to John Logan that he call them “4A”, for example, so we thought of them differently. The music leads the audience into a journey.’
The actors’ performances are growing all the time. ‘Very good indeed,’ says Michael after another runthrough. ‘You clearly made a huge leap with the words there. You were listening, it was a real dialogue, you drew us in.’ They’ll run a scene, or a moment from a scene, discuss it and then run it again. ‘Let me talk you through a few notes,’ Michael will say, ‘and we’ll do it again.’ He focuses on specific words with Alfie: ‘We need help with names like Chet Baker. I think you also have to pick out all those artists – Rauschenberg, Lichtenstein, Warhol…’ He encourages him to really challenge Rothko in their argument within this scene: ‘Put contempt into “You’re too much” so it’s getting a harder colour.’
Michael listens carefully to the development of the characters’ speeches, in particular the thought processes within them, commenting to Fred: ‘You put that, “I’M NOT HERE TO MAKE PRETTY PICTURES!” into its own space within that argument.’ He draws attention to the author’s guidance within the text, particularly on certain words: ‘Really use John Logan’s underlining there.’ Later he considers the underlining of ‘place’ in Rothko’s line, ‘And most important they’re going into a place created just for them’. Ultimately, says Michael, the actors need to find these emphases for themselves.
Occasionally he’ll warn the actors about going too fast, encouraging them to take their time. He might suggest certain lines need greater emphasis – ‘It was just slightly sitting under’ - or encourage them to think their way through a speech more: ‘It’s going into the floor a bit. Let it become the start of your argument – “OK, you...”.’ Michael’s focus on being specific and precise with the words helps to avoid what the actors themselves identify as ‘generalisation’. ‘Find “A place of contemplation”,’ he encourages Alfie. ‘Pick it out.’ He praises him for his reaction to Rothko’s attempts to justify his acceptance of the Seagram commission: ‘You did a wonderful piece of listening on, “I didn’t enter into this capriciously, you know”.’
Watching and listening to Scene Four again, Michael’s curious why Rothko suddenly seems to change his opinion about Seagram towards the end of the scene. ‘Does my ear hear that you’ve reconciled yourself to people eating in that restaurant who don’t like your work?’ he asks Fred. ‘Just be the audience for a second – don’t we want to invest in you, that you believe in what you’re doing?’
Sometimes his notes focus on very practical details, saying to an actor, ‘It would be quite nice if you found a reason for doing that, going up there, because it breaks up that diagonal’. In terms of the staging, Fred comments that a number of times his muscle-memory recalls the ‘old moves’. Occasionally an actor will want to reconsider some of their blocking: ‘Can I stay here for all of, “Is that what all this is about?”’
Michael wants to run Scene Four again. ‘Can we have another go at it and just take the time to get the intensity.’ They do it again and as they work through the scene change at the end, Michael calls out, ‘Stop there, I’ve just had an idea’. Rather than Ken helping Rothko move the paint-frame, Michael suggests he stand still as the canvas is moved towards him and his shadow falls across it – ‘So it becomes about Ken for a moment. It’s another little moment for him.’
Stage Management are busy arranging the rehearsal room – laying out floor cloths, sorting buckets of paint and brushes – following a lunchtime Production Meeting, the whole team preparing for the move to the theatre in less than a week’s time.
This afternoon’s rehearsal continues mid-way through Scene Three, from Rothko’s line, ‘Okey-dokey. Let’s prime the canvas’. Michael gives Fred a note about looking at the brushes before looking at the record-player, the thought being, ‘We can do better with the music’. He and Alfie then practice priming the canvas. The first coat is applied very freely, both actors moving quickly. But then they go over it again, working side-by-side, from the bottom of the canvas to the top and back down again, moving in sync, perfectly choreographed. Afterwards Michael comments, ‘That was pretty damn good’.
He’s keen to make sure nothing is missed, saying to Alfie: ‘I always worry that your line – “You really care what I think?” – gets lost a little because you’re facing upstage. Is there any way you can move it round to give it to him (Rothko) out front?’ Following a run, Michael says: ‘I’ve got a couple of questions. Actually, one’s a request – keep building on Van Gogh.’ He encourages Alfie to keep going in his pursuit of Rothko. Watching it again, Michael says: ‘The journey of that row was much better. It built upon itself and took us with you.’ He praises him for Ken’s account of his parents’ death: ‘I thought the speech about your parents was brilliant. You lived it, lived it, lived it. Once you inhabit and drive a speech like that there’s no risk of indulging in it.’ Alfie asks to do it again to work in Michael’s notes.
Having clarified exactly where the imaginary fourth canvas is, in terms of it height and width, they move onto Scene Four, in particular the moment where Ken turns on Rothko. ‘Don’t leave too big a gap after, “You know if I’m married?”,’ says Michael, ‘otherwise I think he would answer it.’
Working their way through to the end of the scene, he congratulates the actors: ‘Very good both of you. Hold onto all of this because it’s good. You’ve taken the argument on from it being just about a building, a restaurant, the people who go there, to something much bigger.’ Michael reflects on the development of the relationship between Rothko and Ken, in particular the moment in this scene where the artist asks his assistant whether he thinks he’s been mistaken in accepting the Seagram commission. ‘We’ve gone on a journey where you, Rothko, really need him to tell you.’ Fred agrees: ‘His second “Answer me”, it’s not so much an instruction as a need.’
‘The structure of that scene is in a really good place,’ reflects Michael, ‘the ups and downs of it, the peaks and troughs. You just have to play with it. I don’t think you can ever sit back on it - it needs to come from an instinctive place. There comes a point in a play with two actors where a director says you have to find it each night by yourselves, once we’ve agreed the central tenants.’
After a short break they look at the beginning of Scene Five, where Ken discovers Rothko slumped on the floor covered in red paint, looking exactly like blood. Michael says the audience needs Ken to take them into the scene: ‘You could help us there, Alfie. Make sure we look at you both, make it seem like you’re going to take his pulse. In my head it’s, “Please, God, don’t be dead!”.’ He wonders what Ken’s thought process is in these opening moments of the scene: ‘Can I just ask, at what point from the fury about thinking he’s dead do you soften? I want you to get to a place where you feel gentle towards him.’ Referring to the moment where Ken gets a damp cloth and gently removes the paint from Rothko’s hand, Michael says: ‘I’d love to see something not written on the page where you think, “Let me wash you…” It’s a very tender moment I think. As someone who’s an adjudicator of what we see, if it’s not done tenderly, with love, it’s rather strange.’
Looking at the final moments of the play, Michael says to Fred: ‘Make sure you inspire him with, “Make something new”.’ Fred agrees: ‘It’s not about my defeat.’ He adds that he almost has an instinct to grab Ken. Michael says to Alfie of Ken’s last exchange with Rothko: ‘You need to think, “Thank you”.’ He encourages both actors to embrace these moments - ‘When we do a runthrough, really go for it.’
Bringing the day’s rehearsal to a close, Michael comments: ‘We’ve got through the entire play today – we’ve talked it and we’ve walked it. Technically that’s as good as it’s ever been.’