In the Solitude of Cotton Fields - the second work by French playwright Bernard-Marie Koltès to open in London this past month, following Black Battles with Dogs at Southwark Playhouse – is an uncannily insightful, microscopic exegesis on a momentary interaction between two strangers in the crepuscular, neon-lit gutter.
En route to his “young fiancée’s” lighted window, the Client (Christopher Hughes) catches the eye of the Dealer (Alexander Roberts), who approaches him, and, in the cold, offers him his jacket. In reality, the whole exchange would take a few seconds. But Koltès’ two-hander is a profoundly probing, pensive examination which leaves no greasy stone of the human mind unturned, combining the knotty stuff of psychological realism with a gloss of Genet-esque absurdism.
Often compared to Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, there is a markedly different energy here, as the characters are not killing time until change arrives from outside, but locked into a slippery scuffle of emotions which pins them unrelentingly to their encounter. Wrenched into the power struggle of their perpetually deferred transaction, the Client and Dealer chart subtle journeys through fragility, spite, self-doubt and giggling despair. Early moments of Kimberley Sykes’ production fumbled for the magnetism that holds characters and audience alike glued to the altercation. Despite this, it emerged as a creative and dynamic revitalization, piercing a complex, cerebral text with illuminating physicality.
As the play opens, Hughes appears at the back of the raked auditorium, steeling himself for several attempts to pelt on to the stage like a man running into the sea. The Dealer’s first monologue is delivered through a megaphone – the only prop, which is effectively used throughout the performance to add unnerving bursts of siren alarms and to quote the words of absent characters. Out of the darkness, Roberts is revealed in skin-tight leather (defiantly complete with conspicuous bump), eyeliner and a fur coat. The walls of the black-box studio space are hung with coats and jackets reminiscent of a Christian Boltanski installation, and which evoke passers-by in this city scene, turned away against the cold and the seedy humanity of the alley. For solitude is these characters’ utopia; isolation is their comfort zone. The Client protests that they both should be “proud zeroes”, rolling past each other but never touching, immune to the grubby temptations of communion. But it is too late: grimly, Hughes admits that he has stepped down “into the gutter”, where the squelch of mystery is compared to farmyard shit.
It’s a long time before the actors touch, skirting the edges of the stage like boxers; and when they do, the friction is palpable. Of the two, the Dealer is, unsurprisingly, the more visceral, and interacts with the jackets (other customers?) with drooling caresses. Roberts’ physicality is initially a bit repetitive; coupled with his mincing Cockney accent, it likens him at best to a camp Berkovian prowler, and at worst to a sort of intellectual Russell Brand. Often playing for welcome comic relief, it’s nonetheless unfortunate that Koltès’ absurdist humour is sometimes eclipsed by a brisker comedy. Following what seems to be the sexual climax of the piece, however, a more nuanced and poignant Dealer is revealed behind the tittering London tart. Hughes is, appropriately, somewhat disembodied under a billowing white shirt, but gripping nevertheless thanks to his vocal range and seamless grasp of the text.
Sykes’ brilliantly imaginative physical score is entirely appropriate for the “resolute anti-naturalism” she sees in Koltès. In one of the Client’s more turbulent monologues, she has Roberts playing conductor, puppeteering the climactic rise of Hughes’ speech until both reach an explosive finale. Roberts reclines triumphant; Hughes curls quivering and spent, face to the floor. The piece is meticulously choreographed, and although bolts on stylised moments that aren’t dictated by the text, the physicalisation is never gratuitous, consistently shedding new light onto Koltès’ multilayered poetics.