Black Battles with Dogs @ Southwark Playhouse, London – May 2012

Bernard-Marie Koltes was a French playwright who died young. A quick trawl of the internet reveals that he is little known and seldom performed, yet this Southwark Playhouse revival of Black Battles with Dogs appears on the London Fringe at the same time as his later work, In the Solitude of Cotton Fields, currently showing at the Tristan Bates.Set on a soulless French construction site somewhere in the middle of Africa, the play gives a snapshot into the lives of four contrasting characters as they attempt to aclimatize and come to terms with who, what and where they are.

A black site worker has recently died in circumstances that are never really revealed. Behind a blossoming tree, just beyond the barbed wire that separates the site and its white workers from the African village and its black inhabitants, a man claiming to be the deceased’s brother has come to try and claim the body. Chaotic events ensue as characters from different worlds reluctantly and clumsily interact.

The ever-atmospheric, chilly Vault space lends itself perfectly to the setting, with its scaffolding, plastic sheeting and eerie tunnels reaching back into the darkness. There is little need for elaborate sets or props and Chloe Lamford and Katie Bellman’s simple design is ideal. All four actors work well with what they have, creating some truly tense and often bizarre moments, but it seems that much is lost in a translation that is at times ineffective and lumbering.

Paul Hamilton’s Horn is staid and seemingly tired and dissatisfied with life, appearing in perfect contrast to Joseph Arkley’s Cal who, a chauvinistic and arrogant racist, appears to live completely on his nerves.

Rebecca Smith-Williams puts in a convincing performance as Horn’s unlikely fiancée Leonie, who has ironically accompanied him to the compound to ‘learn about Africa’. Inappropriately dressed and completely out of her depth in almost every situation she encounters, she seems to have little idea of where she is as she flails aimlessly and embarrassingly about the stage. It is her eventual and inevitable break down which invokes the only real empathy with a character.

This piece is nothing short of intriguing throughout, but whilst the themes of isolation, loneliness, displacement and ignorance are prominent in the midst of a clear racial divide, there is a feeling that Koltès is never quite sure of what message he is trying to communicate.

Alexander Zeldin’s production is a little too long and drags terribly in places, but in honesty it is difficult to imagine how better anyone could deal with a plot which is disembodied, murky and lacking in direction.

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