That is no country for old men | Red

Award-winning local theatre-maker Simone Spiteri directs a play about seminal American artist Mark Rothko in Red, working off a script by John Logan – acclaimed screen writer of Gladiator, Skyfall and others.

Edward Mercieca (left) as Mark Rothko and Jean Marc Cafa’ as Ken in Red, directed by Simone Spiteri.
Edward Mercieca (left) as Mark Rothko and Jean Marc Cafa’ as Ken in Red, directed by Simone Spiteri.

Simone Spiteri directs John Logan's award-winning play Red at St James Cavalier in the final week of February, pitching Edward Mercieca as the celebrated American artist Mark Rothko, and Jean-Marc Cafa as his new assistant Ken. Apprehensive of his master's towering persona at first, Ken grows to challenge Rothko's artistic make-up as the contemporary luminary embarks on the lucrative, high profile job of painting the mural at the Four Seasons restaurant in New York.

We spoke to the trio behind FM Theatre's latest production about the process of transposing Logan's imaginative biographical piece, which transports us to Rothko's New York studio in the late 1950s.

Edward Mercieca (actor, Mark Rothko): "The first challenge is getting a grasp on the script. Its a two hander and there is a lot to learn. Rothko's character is brash and looks down on his new assistant Ken, so he is rude and a bully. But that really is a way of hiding his fears and his vulnerability. In the end, Ken grows in stature as Rothko diminishes."

Jean Marc Cafa (actor, Ken): "The tough act to crack was the actual psyche of the character- Ken is similar to me in very many ways, and yet he could not be more different in other respects. There's a certain stillness about the character despite the fact that he is young and eager, and yet that fades away when he is pushed too far. I can safely say that this piece has pulled me out of my comfort zone, which has made it all the more thrilling. I'm loving it!"

Simone Spiteri (director): "I read the play quite randomly, knowing absolutely nothing about except that it had had a good run in London which I'd missed by a few weeks when it closed to move to Broadway. So I read with no expectations and it was the best thing that I could have done because it just ensnared me from the get go in the most raw and visceral of ways.

"Logan has managed to eloquently phrase concepts which I have often tried to grapple with as I have grown older and I could relate to both Rothko and his assistant Ken which to me spells out the ingredients for a wonderful piece of text. I think the story transcends the historical context it is set in because as I have said, the narrative rests on themes such as relationships between father and son, teacher and student, life and death... and those are have not and will not change within human nature."

Cafa: "This character has posed many challenges which has made it all the more fun. The run-of-the-mill hurdles were grappling with the accent, discovering the period the play is set in, getting a bit more in shape to fit the part and gain stamina, and a heck of a lot of line-learning accompanied by lots of text work."

Spiteri: "There is definitely a lot of tension between two males who are both trying to respectively retain and attain their own territory and the fact that it is all set against a vibrant historical context full of references to what was happening at a time when the visual art world was going through radical changes makes it all the more interesting!"

Mercieca: "One other challenge is the physicality of piece. The stretching of the canvasses, the priming of them. moving large canvasses around, mixing the paint in large buckets. The whole theatre is transformed into a artist's studio."

Spiteri: "In today's money Rothko would have earned almost $2 million for his Seagram murals... a fee no local artist, few international ones can ever dream of. But to me, Rothko's dilemma is not exclusive to artists of his standing. Anyone with his profession at heart, be it of an artistic nature or not can understand where he's coming from when he struggles with the idea that as humans we are forever trying to keep ourselves relevant and how hard it is to know when the time has come to step aside and allow a new crop of people to take over from you - and to actually gracefully step aside and pass on the proverbial baton.

"So I don't think that a Maltese audience will not relate to Rothko's predicament, because it is not really just about his identity as an artist but, primarily, about him as a human being."

Red will be playing at St James Cavalier on February 15-17 and 22-24. Tickets are at €17. Bookings: [email protected], 21 223200. The production is sponsored by the Embassy of the United States of America.