“It’s all so senseless”
Set in a white-run construction site in an unidentified African country, Bernard-Marie Koltès’ Black Battles With Dogs is the latest show to move into the second space at the Southwark Playhouse. The throaty ululations of unseen native security guards (unconfirmed reports indicate the yodelling Floyd Collins may still be trapped in the Vault – after all, did we actually see his body…) calling out to each other to keep awake over a long, long night which sees Alboury, a local man, demanding the return of the body of his brother who died that day, apparently in the compound.
The weary Horn is coming to the end of his shift working for this company, he’s physically scarred and emotionally drawn, tired, grumpy and sick of this existence. But it turns out his junior colleague nervy, prejudiced Cal is the one who shot a man and disposed of him nearby and Horn is thrust into the middle of the situation to smooth it out. Matters are further complicated by the arrival of Parisienne Leonie, eminently unsuited to the area but with her eye on marrying Horn for his money. Thus the scene is set, but little really plays out from it in the end.
So much is said in this play, but so little of it makes any impact, it’s like white noise. The writing veers between the humdrum and the would-be profound, exacerbated by a rather clunky translation from David Bradby and Maria M Delgado – find me a Frenchman who has ever referred to the ‘South of France…’ – which ends up being painfully dull. The whole thing yearns for a profundity that never comes, the writing never hits the metaphorical depths it is aiming for (as a colleague pointed out, a huge list of things it is ‘not’ are listed in the programme – the list of things that it is is conspicuous in its absence) but it is not aided by a literal-minded production that locates it firmly in the real world dealing with real problems.
Thus the performances are also caught in this tension. Paul Hamilton struggles as Horn, lumbered with much of the portentous speech which rarely sounds like anything anyone has ever said in real life. Arkley’s viciously racist Cal is loud and extremely physical but rather unconnected to what’s going on around him as if perhaps over-compensating for a lack of substance. And Rebecca Smith-Williams has no chance at all with the appallingly drawn barely-there character of Leonie: that Osi Okerafor’s Alboury spends most of his time with her trying to sell a burgeoning relationship is a shame as it is thoroughly incomprehensible and unbelievable.
There’s also the question of the oft-times unforgiving second space at the Southwark Playhouse. Some of the productions in the Vault have been able to utilise its idiosyncrasies most effectively, but trying to evoke the stifling heat of an African evening whilst it is so cold one can see one’s breath is perhaps a step too far. The design here uses shadowy darkness well to suggest the unknown terrain outwith the compound, but it stretches out a little too wide deep into the railway arches where it might more effectively be hemmed in claustrophobically – not enough happens to really justify the extension of the playing area so far and I do think it would have suited a more tightly defined space much better.
I struggle to see what director Alexander Zeldin and his Idiots Company (that’s their name, not a comment) was trying to achieve by putting on this play. It hasn’t been performed in London for over 20 years and it could well be another 20 before anyone tries again, unless there’s a deeper meaning contained within Koltès’ writing that completely eluded me and was lost in the layers of alienation, isolation and repetition that sadly characterised Black Battles with Dogs.