| Inside the Rehearsal Room

Week Four, Day One

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.

paint bucket and brushes
Red rehearsals. Photo: Marc Brenner

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’.

younger actor with hand over mouth
Red rehearsals. Photo: Marc Brenner

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.’

actor wiping paint from his arm
Red rehearsals. Photo: Marc Brenner

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.’

older man laughing
Red rehearsals. Photo: Marc Brenner

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.”