Red | Melbourne Theatre CompanyLeft – André de Vanny and Colin Friels. Photo – Jeff Busby

The opening scene of Melbourne Theatre Company's Red reminds me of an anecdote about a friend's experience with Australian photographer, Bill Henson. Henson had offered to act as her artistic mentor. As she tells it, upon their first meeting he wordlessly beckoned her into his studio, which was lined with large-scale prints of his work. He put Mahler onto his record player and they stood in silence, for 30 minutes, just listening. My friend didn't know what to make of it, but she eventually came to understand Henson and his process.

Red, written by John Logan, is a bio-play about an integral two years in the career of American abstract expressionist painter, Mark Rothko. It starts with a similar enigmatic moment and then, like my friend, embarks on an intriguing investigation and demystification of the artist's mind.

With this production, the MTC has certainly brought out the big guns. Australian acting statesman Colin Friels teams-up again with Alkinos Tsilimidos, who makes his theatrical directing debut. The duo has impressed audiences previously; most notably, on Tsilimidos' 2004 film, Tom White, then again in 2010 on Blind Company.

Logan requires little introduction. He is contemporary writing royalty with plays under his belt such as Never the Sinner, Hauptmann, and The View as well as a slew of movies to his name (The Last Samurai, Gladiator, The Aviator, and Hugo might spring to mind). Logan's Tony Award-winning script for Red paints Rothko as an egotistical and intense genius, desperately trying to harness inspiration and find his work's significance.

The effect is a slick and satisfying piece of theatre that is most remarkable for its refreshingly clear and impactful representation of the philosophy of aesthetics, and the mind of the artist. What makes art, especially 'difficult' expressionist art, good? This is a question at the root of most Fine Arts degrees, but one that can cause awkward moments at dinner parties. Red asks it, complicates it, dances on it, and folds it into the psychological journey of Mark Rothko as he creates his commissioned murals for the Four Seasons restaurant in New York in 1958. Is it the high point of his career – the ultimate recognition – or is it evidence of him selling-out?

The narrative drive of the two-hander is provided by the relationship between Rothko and his newly-hired assistant, Ken (played by Andre de Vanny). Ken is sometimes Rothko's shadow, and sometimes, unwittingly, his mirror. As a pair they stand at opposite ends of artistic experience; the idealistic youth, and the genius facing the peak of his powers. Their repartee glistens as Ken gradually develops his confidence and theoretical chops. The dynamic between Friels and de Vanny is a highlight. De Vanny gives Ken a naïve, attentive exhuberance, balanced with sharp wit and observation, which contrasts beautifully with Friels' Rothko, who is centred on rhetorical flights and the labour of process.

Shaun Gurton's set is stunning, and makes Red a great fit for the Sumner Theatre. I still cannot understand why they decided to put writing on the inside walls of Melbourne's newest major venue. It is its greatest design flaw. But it's greatest virtue, the elegant seating rake, folds the audience like a wave onto the warehouse stage space. Just as Rothko's work demands heightened engagement from its viewer, so does Red of its audience. Design details – shelves of paint cans, exposed brick, and grime – stand out impressively. The artist's mind is represented visually and verbally as both meticulous and big-thinking – requiring mountains of unused energy and space to produce a cogent artwork.

The way that this excess is captured in Red, and then made the key subject matter, makes for a compelling 90 minutes.

Friels' Jewish New Yorker accent is great for Rothko's Rabbi-like aphorisms, but sometimes falls into a predictable rhythm during longer speeches. Another reservation I had was that we may just not need this play. While Red sees the MTC maintain its reputation of bringing world-renowned theatrical works to Melbourne audiences, we might appreciate it more for the theatrical event than it being a cutting-edge piece of culture. Sure, it is a tight piece of writing, re-produced with aplomb, and deserves to be award-winning in the States. It ticks every canonising box for them. But for us? It feels a little like a exhibition piece on a world tour.

Red does, however, bring its audience into immediate contact with artists of talent and inspiration. It is a sophisticated reflection of Rothko's work and career. We can, or are even required to, watch Red in the same way that we would view a Rothko painting, where the philosophical ideas informing the piece are often more important than the work itself. In the same way, dare I say, it teeters thrillingly on the brink of selling-out.

Melbourne Theatre Company presents
by John Logan

The MTC Theatre, Sumner
Dates: 22 March – 5 May 2012
Tickets: from $56; Under 30s just $33
Bookings: 03 8688 0800 |

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