Rothko’s Tears (And a Question on Originality)

Grigorios Ioannidis*

Rohtko, staged at Onassis Stegi, Athens, 25-28 May 2023. First Venue, 1-3 Dec 2022, Dailes Theatre, Riga, Latvia, 10-11 Dec 2022, Krakow, Poland (Divine Comedy Festival). Directed by Lukasz Twarkowski; author and dramaturg Anka Herbut; set design by Fabien Lédé; costume design by Svenja Gassen; choreography by Pawel Sakowicz; composer Lubomir Grzelak; video design by Jakub Lech; lighting design by Eugenijus Sabaliauskas; producer Ginta Tropa. Cast: Castjuris Bartkevičs, Kaspars Dumburs, Ilze Ķuzule-Skrastiņa, Yan Huang, Andrzej Jakubczyk, Rēzija Kalniņa, Katarzyna Osipuk, Artūrs Skrastiņš, Mārtiņš Upenieks, Vita Vārpiņa, Toms Veličko, Xiaochen Wang. The performance was created by Dailes Theatre in Latvia in co-operation with JK Opole Theatre in Poland and the Adam Mickiewicz Institute with co-financing from the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage of the Republic of Poland.

The anagrammed surname of the famous Latvian/American painter Mark Rothko (1903-70) gives the title to the performance of the new enfant terrible of the Polish scene, Lukasz Twarkowski, and it becomes the threshold through which the audience will pass into an eccentric theatrical world: A world of art and loneliness, of great dreams and a sense of decadence, set in a Chinese restaurant purgatory that resonates with the lonely souls of Edward Hopper and Tennessee Williams and in which the chronologies of the biography of the painter overlap one another.

A general perspective of Rohtko in Onassis Stegi’s production. Photo: Pinelopi Gerasimou

In this hypnotic world everything coexists beside its double; the question is not so much what is real but what is fake in art (as well as in the outside world) and whether, in the time of NFT and art digitalization by blockchains and bitcoins, it is worth asking these kinds of questions at all.

A few years ago one of Rothko’s paintings, which had been sold for some outrageous sum, was eventually proven to be fake—in the scandal that eventually burst it was found that several other paintings signed by him had also been created (or should we say, fabricated) by a Chinese mathematician. The cancelling mechanisms were immediately set in motion, leading to the deletion of important names from the world of art and its market.

Rohtko’ s Chinese restaurant. Photo: Pinelopi Gerasimou

This story, however, has to do with the world that lies around the tiny Chinese restaurant on stage; for most of the performance, what we encounter is a series of private conversations between the restaurant’s patrons: a curator discussing with an artist about an art exhibition he’s planning, two prospective actors who get to know each other because of their roles in the future film adaptation of Rothko’s life; at one point, Rothko himself, going through one of his many crises with his wife Mell, this time because of a planned exhibition of his work at New York’s famous 4 Seasons restaurant…. The show, however, gradually unfolds into a collective art exhibition, structured on the materials (and props) of the previous scenes and as their continuity. With the music increasing in volume, the world becomes a showcase of display and openness, a storefront that trades in image and style, leaving the artist alone to wrestle with his own demons.

And yet the real value of art, Rohtko reminds us, is not in the work of art itself. The very notion of authenticity, as the one and only original work, is a creation of western modernity, a price European culture had to pay in order to locate in the multiple new world a commonly recognized principle. It is moreover—as is also obvious—the result of a capitalist network of values that translates into monetary language almost everything that is capable of creating desire.[1]

One more view of the Rohtko in Onassis Stegi. Photo: Pinelopi Gerasimou

Compared to this modern world view of art, the Chinese perspective, for example, considers not the work itself but its network of references to be more important, even if some of the works produced are to Western eyes copies or forgeries.[2] What gives a creative joy in that case is the transparency of the reproduction procedure. It happens in the very beginning of the Rohtko performance: a food delivery boy brings to the Chinese restaurant some basic materials which will immediately be offered to the patrons, processed of course, as authentic Chinese food. So, is this a scam? We would answer that it is as much a “scam” as the “fraud” of the actor playing the “delivery boy” who will willingly dissolve the illusion of the theatrical convention just to remind everyone of the game of his (also) “fake” existence.

Juris Bartkevičs (Mark Rothko) & Vita Vārpiņa (Mell Rothko) sitting in the restaurant. Photo: Pinelopi Gerasimou

From this point begins a performance which, if anything, embodies the question of authenticity in its very existence. What we are watching on stage is in fact a giant screen displaying a montage of the scenes being shot in real time on the Chinese restaurant set,[3] while the true persons appearing on the screen are nothing more than actors of the company aiming to present a somehow fake copy of the outside real world. It would certainly be ironic to talk here about an authentic representation of reality.

Many have already spoken about the multimedia environment in which Twarkowski’s innovative theatre operates. Yet we can still discover the purpose of good old theatre in this case, namely, to put “the human” back at the centre of things. Behold, then, Rothko, the one and perishable, behind the many lifeless Rohtkos of the showrooms. Behold the one truly original Rothko who is reborn for anyone who can still feel the tears flowing from his works.

Everyone is eager to give the Polish director credit for a fundamental proposal for the soul and body of our modern culture. But we can only see behind the radiance of this new star of European theatre, the surrounding satellites that also impress us with their own radiance. Let us say that the work of the dramatist Anka Herbut is the basis for this four-hour poetic osmosis of the mythical with the everyday, the human with the inanimate, the artist with the distorting mirror and, finally, the theatre itself with its idol. I note separately her measured and deictic dialogues, her rendering of a loneliness that now accompanies any discussion of contemporary art, and the subtle humor with which she has skewered the fictional seriousness of the art world’s spaces.

The two Chinese owners of the restaurant (Xiaochen Wang & Yan Huang). Photo: Pinelopi Gerasimou

Nor should we overlook the sets created by the director’s collaborator Fabien Lédé. The ability of the set to translate the director’s vision into a universe, to constantly transform and fill our experience, belongs to him as well as to the incredible team of technicians who stage the whirlwind of the scenery with split-second precision every night (not coincidentally, they take a bow with the actors at the end of each performance). And it certainly belongs to the production team that enabled everyone to realize this vision, pushing the budget to the very limit, as it seems to me.

The same impression, which borders on admiration, was given to me by the costumes of Svenja Gassen, the choreography of Pawel Sakowicz, the videos of Jakub Lech, the lighting of Eugenijus Sabaliauskas. And separately by Lubomir Grzelak’s music, as it follows the pulse of the authentic body living under the world of individuality and arrogance.

The full theatre company at Rohtko’s last scene. Photo: Pinelopi Gerasimou

The audience gave a standing ovation at the Onassis’ Stegi for the manifestation of a power proved to be much greater to theatre than oblivion. It is the memory of the creator living outside his own mythology. The mostly Latvian troupe is teaching us, once again, what true realism stands for, with their own emerging from the depth and silence of human poetry. The team of Juris Bartkevičs, Kaspars Dumburs, Ilze Ķuzule-Skrastiņa, Yan Huang, Andrzej Jakubczyk, Rēzija Kalniņa, Katarzyna Osipuk, Artūrs Skrastiņš, Mārtiņš Upenieks, Vita Vārpiņa, Toms Veličko and Xiaochen Wang is admirable both when they act on stage and when they retreat to the edge of being.

The only thing missing from this essay on Rothko’s work is his own paintings. It’s not that necessary after all; on the web one can find as many as replicas of Rothko as one wants, for whatever application one wishes…. But on the Onassis Stage, behind each copied Rothko what we feel is the presence of the one and only, of the always original Rothko.


[1] More than once we could point here to Bourdieu’s representation of art as in the between the “field” of power and its capitalistic materiality, Pierre Bourdieu, The Field of Cultural Production, Columbia UP, 1994, pp. 332.

[2] As Twarkowski himself confesses, he was deeply affected on the East perception on originality by the book Shanzhai: Deconstruction in Chinese by writer Byung-Chul Han, see «Rothko as Rotkho. Lukasz Twarkowski on the Provenance of Art», in:

[3] Of course this post-illusionist technique, as described by Marvin Carlson, has become internationally known mainly through the similar techniques of Ivo van Hove and Katie Mitchell in the past. 

*Grigorios Ioannidis works as Associate Professor in the Theatre Studies Department, University of Athens, Greece. He is also Coordinator in the Creative Dramatic Writing Postgraduate Program, Hellenic Open University. He has a Diploma in Electrical Engineering (NTUA), BSc in Theatrical Studies (University of Athens), an MA in History and Philosophy of Science and Mathematics (King’s College, London) and in Theatrology (Theatre Department, UOA). His Doctoral Thesis is on the History of Modern Greek Theatre (2005, Theatre Department, UOA). He is a theatre reviewer for the Journalists’ Journal (Efimerida ton Sintakton).

Copyright © 2023 Grigorios Ioannidis
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