"Prime" Time: A Closer Look at Red's Provocative Canvas Scene

Special Features   "Prime" Time: A Closer Look at Red's Provocative Canvas Scene
 
Red, John Logan's Tony Award-nominated play about abstract-expressionist painter Mark Rothko, explodes with color in the middle of its 90-minute running time.
John Logan
John Logan Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

In a daring act of choreographed wordless theatre, Tony nominees Alfred Molina (as Rothko) and Eddie Redmayne (as his assistant, Ken) take brushes in hand and plunge them into blood-red prime to prepare a canvas. They maneuver around each other — thrusting, squatting, reaching — slathering the hue on the canvas to cover it prior to Rothko's later painting of it. By the end, often to the sound of applause, they are splattered with the liquid, looking like survivors of a horror-film massacre.

When you walk away from the Michael Grandage-directed production, it's one of the scenes that everyone talks about.

"It is, without a doubt, my favorite part in the play," playwright John Logan told Playbill.com. "There are no words, so I don't have to worry about the words."

How did the scene come about?

Logan explained, "I always knew that if you were going to write a play about painting and art — and I knew there was going to be a lot of heavy, challenging Rothko dialogue about art — there had to be theatrical life to it. There had to be some sense of coup de theatre to be stage-worthy, so I always envisioned that sequence as the fulcrum of the play, the dead middle of the play where you get to see them actually doing what they've been talking about." Logan said the scene was always in the play, but he didn't know what it was going to be like until the actors got into rehearsal in 2009, when Red had its world premiere at London's Donmar Warehouse.

"We rehearsed that probably more than any other point in the play, because it has to be so completely choreographed," Logan said. "And we spent weeks with the actors just getting covered in paint left, right and center, and I give Michael Grandage and Fred Molina and Eddie Redmayne all credit for just diving in and getting splattered every single day for a solid week while we kept working at it."

Is it written out on the page?

"It's about a two-page sequence where I describe it, and I try to describe it in the most active terms possible, to suggest the emotion of it, the eroticism of it, the theatricality of it," Logan said. "Until they work together, until they paint together, they're not equals in any way, and Rothko has to start looking at Ken, at this protégé, as an equal force in life. And so that is the thing that — theatrically, for the audience, I think — really sort of bonds them in a little dance."

A glimpse at the provocative canvas-priming scene in the Donmar Warehouse production of Red.

Playbill.com learned that the prime scene requires the following:

  • Eight buckets of water per week
  • Eight 8-ounce bags of Rabbit Skin Glue to mix with the powdered pigment per week
  • 12 cups of slated powdered pigment per week Logan said, "We tried real prime, but it's so smelly. You know, 'cause it has, like, animal hooves in it and glue in it. We had to sort of create our own. But we had a great scenic artist we work with who came in, and we studied it and we mixed it, we tried different versions of it to get the exact right consistency. And they're constantly adjusting the recipe to make sure it has just the right [quality]. It was like a chemistry lesson."

    The production's design team also worked with experts from the Tate Modern in London.

    Red continues at the Golden Theatre on West 45th Street. Visit redonbroadway.com.

  • Alfred Molina and Eddie Redmayne in <i>Red</i>.
    Alfred Molina and Eddie Redmayne in Red. Photo by Johan Persson
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