On the stage

I LOVE going to the theatre. I get a warped kick out of gobbling up 40 shows in nine days in Grahamstown every year, even though I spend the next two weeks recovering from an acute bout of culture-itis.

But sometimes, when I make the effort to trek out to see a play that leaves me cold, I become irritated. I wish I'd stayed at home, curled up on the couch, staring passively at MasterChef rather than being actively involved in an underwhelming live-entertainment encounter.

To be honest, that deflated feeling doesn't overcome me very often. Most productions have some grain of merit, even if it's just introducing an interesting new talent in an otherwise mediocre play. But it's horrible when high expectations are dashed. Which brings me to a tale of two plays - one disappointing and the other immaculate, inspiring and completely breathtaking.

Last week, I was looking forward to seeing two works that had travelled to Johannesburg after playing on the main programme at the National Arts Festival: Craig Higginson's LITTLE FOOT at the Market Theatre, directed by Malcolm Purkey, and US playwright John Logan's RED at the Old Mutual Theatre on the Square, directed by Steven Stead. I'd "saved" them for Joburg, all the better to savour them.

Little Foot was one of 10 plays commissioned by London's National Theatre and then given to schools and youth theatres to produce for its 2012 Connections Festival.

Higginson is an internationally acclaimed South African playwright, having created the award-winning two-hander, The Girl in the Yellow Dress, and the gripping Dream of the Dog. His Little Foot, though, extended from the original for South African audiences, fails to live up to that high standard. The premise has hints of brilliance - juxtaposing the primal instincts of mankind's ancestors with those of contemporary society - but seems curiously directionless and unfinished.

A hybrid between The Blair Witch Project and Shallow Grave set in the Cradle of Humankind, Little Foot is apparently aimed at teenagers. This does not excuse the amateurish acting by some of the young cast, who, to be fair, have to contend with dialogue that lacks punch and authenticity and a plot that is often baffling.

Higginson knows how to script a play in such a way as to captivate children and adults, as demonstrated by his virtuoso adaptation of The Jungle Book, and one can only conclude that this particular piece of writing was brought to the stage not yet fully formed - or rather, given its subject matter, not yet fully evolved. A saving grace is former Standard Bank Young Artist Neil Coppen's evocative production design - from the caves to the hominins' eerie death masks.

The following night, the art of theatre was redeemed in magnificent style. Red is a play that will restore any jaded hack's faith in theatre and will convert non thespians into rabid adherents of the staged word.

Every aspect of this production is world class, from Greg King's art-studio sets and Tina le Roux's lighting design (she also did a fine job on Little Foot), to the powerhouse, career-defining performance by Michael Richard as the Russian-American abstract expressionist artist, Mark Rothko.

If that sounds sycophantic, it is. Unashamedly. I have not seen an actor inhabit a character so generously and uninhibitedly for a long time. He is stupendous in the role and mesmerising to watch.

This Tony Award-winning script offers an intelligent and absorbing dissection of the process of creation: the eternal tussle between intellect and emotion, between ego and superego, between the commercial imperatives of popular taste and remaining true to artistic integrity.

Rothko's signature style comprised bold swathes of colour on the picture plane, veering from bright and passionate to black and moody as disillusionment set in. In the play, the artist segues from thundering, mercurial megalomaniacal to vulnerable man who fears being supplanted by the "new guard" of pop art upstarts. As Rothko's assistant, Richard's son Jeremy more than holds his own in the presence of a great actor portraying a great artist.

It's a riveting to-and-fro between Rothko and his increasingly confident foil, making for invigorating, stimulating, illuminating and probing theatre that will tempt you to return for a second fix of brain food the following night.

This is theatre as it should be.