Reviewed – 19th June 2019
“a richly entertaining piece of theatre driven by starry performances”
“Nobody minded bad behaviour as long as the public didn’t get to hear about it” Louis B. Mayer once told his young star, Mickey Rooney. Since the birth of Hollywood this has been a truism, sustaining the myth of the movie mogul as profane, vulgar, cruel, rapacious and philandering. The only real change these days is that the public does get to hear about it more and more. There is currently one name that everybody will no doubt associate with Barney Fein, the sleaze-ball producer masterfully played by John Malkovitch in David Mamet’s “Bitter Wheat”. But Mamet’s writing points the finger at a longer line of tycoons to produce an amalgam which adds more dimensions to the character. Malkovitch seizes this opportunity to add humour and human traces. But never sympathy.
Nobody escapes the machine-gun fire of Fein’s vitriol that turns to lasciviousness when he meets young actress, Yung Kim Li, to discuss her new film. He promises stardom, and we all know in return for what, especially as he has just had a high dose of a libido-enhancing drug that is just kicking in. Ioanna Kimbook catches on just as quickly with an impressive portrayal of the ingénue’s growing discomfort. It’s in this scene that Mamet’s wit really shines through, with faux-pas in abundance that soon take a darker turn when the inevitable career defining threat arrives.
Sadly, neither character comes out of this well. Nor does the second act which seems to be racing towards its rather farcical conclusion. Naturally, when the police are brought in Fein’s life falls apart. But the actress’ career is destroyed too, before it has started. Fein’s long-suffering secretary is also out of a job. Doon Mackichan downplays the contempt she feels for Fein perfectly – pitching it just right: high enough to be recognised but low enough to avoid the counterattack.
The subplots and sub characters that are tagged onto this central story seem unnecessary. An illegal immigrant who assassinates Fein’s terminally ill mother serves little purpose. The opening scene of the play, on the other hand, in which Fein refuses to pay a screenwriter his due fee is underexplored and unceremoniously discarded. It is in these moments that we are given a stronger insight into the psyche of the extraordinary character that is Barney Fein; and into the machinations of Hollywood. There is a quirkiness to the dialogue that is unmatched by the predictability of the sexual assault headlines.
Overall though, this is a richly entertaining piece of theatre driven by starry performances. Mamet manages to display his usual, exhilarating and unique flair with words, tackling an uncomfortable subject. If anything, however, the humour makes it all a bit too comfortable and doesn’t necessarily advance the issues it is addressing. In this case truth is stranger than fiction.
Reviewed by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Manuel Harlan
Garrick Theatre until 21st September
Previously reviewed at this venue:
“It’s like seeing food being cooked on stage, we do it everyday but on stage it becomes transfixing.”
Almost a decade after its first performance at the Donmar Warehouse, Michael Grandage is reviving his Tony Award-winning production of John Logan’s Red. The performance, featuring Alfred Molina reprising his role as the twentieth century artist Mark Rothko and Alfred Enoch making his West End debut as his assistant, Ken, will preview from 5th May and open on 15th May at the Wyndham’s Theatre.
I recently joined Grandage, Molina and Enoch at their rehearsal space, located in Islington’s Union Chapel, whereby he explained his reasoning for reviving the show and how his relationship to its central themes have evolved over the past nine years.
The rehearsal room is decked out with a variety of Rothko-esque canvases, which Grandage later reveals is purposefully meant to merely evoke a sense of similarity and not an exact replication of Rothko’s work. In addition there are various painting implements, including a working stove where, during the performance, paints are mixed and created in a truly authentic fashion. This is Grandage’s focus at the beginning, as he emphasises why such naturalistic direction is inherent to the central themes, and his particular rendition of Logan’s play. He explains how both himself and the cast ‘learnt the craft [of painting] together – in order to be entirely authentic’ and thus being able to ‘really understand the craft.’ Christopher Oram’s set design sees a recreation of Rothko’s studio space located in New York’s Bowery district in the late fifties. The real studio was based in an old baseball court, signified in the design by the lines drawn onto the floor of the stage which is also replicated in the rehearsal space.
The play demands quite a lot of physical preparation from the actors. Molina, who previously played Rothko in Grandage’s production in both London and New York, states that this revival is a fresh take on the same production and the only integral part remaining from the original 2009 production is purely technical and associated with the artistic tasks within the play, e.g. mixing paint. The most laborious of these is priming a canvas, a scene which Grandage insists is central to the play and reveals that actions that may considered ordinary for an artist, are ‘quite exciting for an audience. It’s like seeing food being cooked on stage, we do it everyday but on stage it becomes transfixing.’ Whilst there is no actual scene of Rothko painting, every other aspect of an “artist-at-work” is explored, viscerally through Grandage’s production.
The original production in 2009 had a relatively short run at the Donmar Warehouse, a venue with a much smaller capacity than Wyndham’s. Grandage, as well as Molina, reveals that this meant although it had a welcome reception later on Broadway, only a small portion of London audiences had a chance to see it. This is one of the main reasons for the revival, as well as how well the play thematically relates to our current sociopolitical climate. The central theme of the play revolves around the classic debate of why art is important, and in a time of ever growing cuts to the arts industry, it seems more appropriate now than ever to reignite such a debate. Grandage also points out his decision to bring the revival to a West End theatre is also to highlight these concerns right in the heart of the non-subsidised theatre world. He believes that by reviving the updated production, in a larger theatre and for a longer run, it already allows for the play to be more accessible than in 2009.
Whilst the central themes of the play tackle the idea of the new versus the established – following a master teaching his student – this provides interesting parallels towards the current state of the industry, the subject itself may still in someway alienate a younger audience who are perhaps less familiar with Rothko. Enoch, however, vehemently believes that the central themes are relatable to all as he admits himself that he was largely unaware of Rothko’s life and work until auditioning for this very play. ‘The script is so well crafted that most people will resonate with its very universal themes’, Enoch claims. ‘It’s watching two intelligent people going “at it”, not different to say, a tennis match between Nadal and Federer, you don’t have to know much about tennis to understand why such an experience is worthwhile’. Additionally, Grandage adds that, as the play explores the idea of young, emerging artists, he too wants to focus on bringing in the new generation of audience members, theatremakers and reviewers by making sure a large proportion of the tickets are affordable for younger audiences.
It seems a revival of such a play as Red, with its central themes more relevant now than ever, could be the breath of fresh air that the West End needs in order to become more accessible for emerging artists and audiences. Perhaps an incredibly naturalistic portrayal of two types of artists making ‘art’ on a series of levels is just the tonic that is needed. As Rothko himself once said, ‘a painting is not a picture of an experience, but is the experience.’
Article by Claire Minnitt
Rehearsal Photography by Marc Brenner
Main Image by Johann Persson
Wyndham’s Theatre 4th May to 28th July