Reviews OWE & Fringe Published 14 April 2012

Black Battles with Dogs

Southwark Playhouse ⋄ 11th April - 5th May 2012

Alienation and isolation.

Tracey Sinclair

French playwright Bernard-Marie Koltès is currently having a bit of a moment in London, with this Southwark Playhouse production and his 1985 play In the Solitude of Cotton Fields playing at the Tristam Bates Theatre. Unfortunately, the playwright’s undeniably resonant themes are too often muddled in Alexander Zeldin’s overlong and occasionally overwrought staging.

The play is set in Africa. In a failing, French-owned construction site on the brink of closure, the world weary Horn is dealing with a series of crises: a black worker has died in questionable circumstances and Alboury, one of the villagers, has turned up to claim the missing body; his new wife Leonie has arrived and almost immediately proved herself unsuited for her new surroundings, and his highly strung associate Cal is searching for his lost beloved dog – and on top of this, Horn is trying to organise a fireworks display, one final flourish to sign out of his African life before he returns with Leonie to Paris.

Black Battles is at great pains to communicate a sense of alienation and isolation, the fatal lack of understanding between the blacks on one side of the fence and the whites on the other, and in this the production is beautifully served by Chloe Lamford’s and Katie Bellman’s deceptively simple design, as well as the the venue itself: covered in plastic sheeting and scaffolding, the tunnels of the Vault are still visible, hinting at the ever present danger that lies outside the compound. And it is a threat that works both ways: Alboury is reluctant to step beyond that barrier to come inside even when invited, fearful of the treatment that a black man on site after dark would receive. Unfortunately this atmospheric setting is undermined by an occasionally clunky script, poor characterisation and uneven pacing which allows the action to veer from leaden to hysterical.

The performances are generally fine, but they are hampered by an overly declaratory style of writing – too often it feels like everyone is speaking, and no one is talking. Paul Hamilton’s Horn suffers most from this, giving his performance a slightly mannered feel, although he does conjure a suitable sense of a man tired by life. As Cal, Joseph Arkley has a mercurial manic energy: racist and sexually aggressive, he is the internal threat that is more dangerous than anything beyond the fence, but it’s such a one note role that he is never entirely as compelling as he should be.

Osi Okerafor fares better in the first half than the second: lurking in the shadows, he is a wary pragmatist tinged with a hint of menace, but in the play’s second half, when he has struck up an unlikely – and ultimately doomed – relationship with Leonie, he is less convincing. Their relationship – presumably meant to imply that, approached with innocence and an unbiased eye, connection between the two worlds is possible – is hampered by a complete lack of chemistry between the pair, some odd script decisions, and the flawed characterisation of Leonie herself. Although Rebecca Smith-Williams does the best with what she is given, I found it difficult to understand what Leonie was supposed to be: wandering around in an unsuitable frock and impractical shoes, constantly on the verge of weeping, she is a bewildered child-woman who never quite feels like an actual person.

Are we supposed to think that she is just dangerously naïve, or a gold digger out of her depth when the reality of her new situation strikes? Perhaps she is chemically unbalanced (the constant reference to her ‘tablets’ implying she is in some way unstable) or genuinely mentally impaired? Her behaviour throughout is so downright strange that her eventual, inevitable breakdown elicits little sympathy.

The production is also fatally uneven and far too long: in its efforts to illustrate the boredom of such a life, it not only drags at times, but conversely what action there is feels overdone: the second half of the play in particular is one long car crash of confrontation and hysteria, which begins to prove exhausting long before it gets to its final resolution.


Tracey Sinclair

Tracey Sinclair is a freelance editor and writer, a published author and performed playwright. She writes for a number of print and online magazines and most recently has focused on the Dark Dates series of books, including A Vampire in Edinburgh. You can follow her on Twitter under the profoundly misleading name @thriftygal

Black Battles with Dogs Show Info

Directed by Alexander Zeldin

Written by Bernard-Marie Koltès

Cast includes Paul Hamilton, Osi Okerafor, Joseph Arkley, Rebecca Smith-Williams


Running Time 2 hrs (including interval)



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