Saturday, 14 April 2012

Theatre review: Black Battles With Dogs

Southwark Playhouse's Vault space is drowned in haze for Bernard-Marie Koltès's Black Battles With Dogs, the lighting picking out four characters in and around a sealed-off compound in an unnamed African country. The cast features two former members of the RSC's EnsembleTM: Supervisor Horn (Paul Hamilton) has been in Africa for some time, and stays there despite having lost his genitals in a local conflict. Cal (Joseph Arkley) is younger, more volatile, and fiercely racist towards the locals. They both work for a French construction company that is about to pull out of the area. A couple of days ago Cal shot a black worker and disposed of the body into a sewer. Now Alboury (Osi Okerafor,) claiming to be the dead man's brother, has arrived demanding the body be returned. Also in the camp is Leonie (Rebecca Smith-Williams,) a pretty but poor young Parisian girl who's planning to marry Horn for his money.

Sometimes summarising a play's storyline is tricky because I don't want to give too much away. And other times, like this, it's hard because there's so little story to speak of it's hard to piece together its meagre strands. Black Battles With Dogs is, to me, the epitome of the negative stereotypes of French theatre: There's a lot of talk, which seems to imagine itself steeped in significance but actually adds up to very little at all. Alexander Zeldin's production certainly seems to suggest we find some deeper meaning to the work, since there's nothing about flooding the freezing cold Vault with fog that literally suggests a sweltering African desert.

I'm not sure what to say about the performances. They're pitched fairly big, perhaps to make up for how little's going on. I didn't particularly have a problem with this though, and there's the germ of something interesting in the way Arkley's character, who keeps speaking of the black workers as animals, is himself given animalistic qualities, with simian limbs and walking dog-like at times. Although after a couple of hours of the characters necking neat whisky, I was amused by Hamilton apparently deciding near the end that maybe he should suddenly be drunk now. And, as unintentionally appropriate lines go, it's hard not to get the giggles at Horn proclaiming "it's all so senseless!" near the end. This was my only actual fit of the giggles (unlike certain other bloggers who might have been at today's matinee as well) although when, in the second act, Horn tells Cal to find the missing body, I did get a little jolt of shock at being reminded that there was actually a plot, of sorts.

The publicity for Black Battles With Dogs informs us the play hasn't been seen in London for 20 years, and it's not hard to see why theatre companies might have steered clear. The biggest entertainment value was that, thanks to the traverse staging, every time there was a blackout we could watch more people desperately trying to make an early exit. I'm not exaggerating when I say there was actual clambering over seats.

Black Battles With Dogs by Bernard-Marie Koltès, translated by David Bradby and Maria M. Delgado, is booking until the 5th of May at Southwark Playhouse's Vault.

Running time: 2 hours 25 minutes including interval.

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