A tortured genius comes to London.

Deighton Thomas, the London actor who plays artist Mark Rothko in the play, Red, describes playing Rothko as one of the great tests of his acting career.

“This is the challenge I’ve been looking for,” he says, recounting his first experience with Red’s imposing two-man script.

Rothko, the famous mid-20th century abstract expressionist painter, died of suicide in 1969. Along with a legacy of 836 paintings, a notable artefact from his life is John Logan’s play, Red. The London theatre group, Calithumpian Theatre, stages a production of this play at the McManus from November 17-25.

It’s complicated…

Red, which documents a short period of Mark Rothko’s life from 1958-59, invites a response from its audience similar to that of Rothko’s work.

The play is claustrophobic and physical, with sophisticated dialogue that traces universal themes in a way that Thomas describes as “high brow.” The play originally mounted in London, England in 2009, before moving to Broadway in 2010, where it won six Tony awards.

The legend of Mark Rothko’s paintings resonates widely.

Mark Rothko, ‘Black on Maroon’, 1958

Their scale – large, rectangular shapes rich with intense colour – is such that they cannot be ignored when seen in person.They draw visceral, emotional responses from their audiences, who have to labour to appreciate the work much as the artist did in their creation.

Right man for the job

Mark Rothko’s character – inspired, temperamental and conflicted – demands a versatile, physically imposing actor. Thomas, with his football lineman’s frame and sophisticated intensity fills the role perfectly. He espouses the idea of people “saying yes” to things that challenge them, whether they’re prepared to do so or not.

Deighton Thomas as Mark Rothko
Deighton Thomas sporting his Mark Rothko hairstyle, cut fresh for the role.

This same thinking is at the root of Rothko accepting the commission for the famous murals at the Seagram Building in New York, the endeavour around which Red is set.

The commission was at the time the largest in the history of the modern art world. Accepting the money represented a significant windfall for Rothko, but stood in contrast to his views on art mixing with commerce.

This is brought to light in Red by Rothko’s assistant, Ken (Andrew Tribe), who builds a rapport with the painter, and eventually finds the nerve to challenge his motives and convictions.

At the same time, Rothko himself is uncertain of his ability to produce a work that matches the impressive confines of the space for which it was commissioned (the Four Seasons restaurant in the Seagram Building).

Hard to play

Ahead of Calithumpian Theatre’s production of Red, which opens this Friday at the McManus, Deighton Thomas refers to the Mark Rothko role as “a chore.”

It’s clear that Thomas chooses the term to represent duty rather than drudgery. It’s a subtle distinction that lays bare Thomas’ respect and affection for Rothko and his work. He describes Rothko’s fuzzy, column-like masterpieces with patience and reverence, but is aware that despite his brilliance Rothko had much to answer for.

“There’s a lot of geniuses who were just tortured people,” he says. “I think you can only burn that way for so long.”

 

RED is presented by Calithumpian Theatre Company, and runs at the Grand Theatre’s McManus stage from November 17-25. Tickets are on sale now.

PHOTOS: Allan Lewis

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