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Black Battles With Dogs

Translated by David Bradby and Maria M. Delgado from a play by Bernard-Marie Koltés
Independent Productions in association with Southwark Playhouse
The Vault, Southwark Playhouse

Leonie and Horn
Cal and Horn
Alboury

A chilly, cavernous vault under the tracks of London Bridge station may not seem the obvious place for a play set in the steaming heat and open plains of Africa, but award-winning director Alexander Zeldin’s Black Battles With Dogs transports the audience to a time and place purposely detached from the outside world.

Here we find three Europeans on an isolated construction site on the brink of closure. Horn, the world-weary boss, aims to ride out the remaining time drinking, playing cards and getting to know his new fiancée, Leone, who has just arrived from Paris unprepared and highly-strung.

His second in command, Cal, has other things on his mind, and plenty of them. After playing a part in the death of a worker, his whole being is pulsating with pent-up frustration and anger, and from the moment Joseph Arkley steps on stage, we’re entranced by his lollops, ticks and racist tirades.

Surrounded by barbed wire fences and guards who shout out ominously in throat songs, the sense of tension and danger is heightened from the word go. It’s never a question of if something tragic will happen, but when. Each character seems at breaking point, floating aimlessly, awaiting the event that will pull them from their internal struggle and set them free.

The sense of isolation, both from the world and other characters, is deftly achieved in the first act, when Horn communicates with characters hidden away in the shadows—their silhouettes visible, but never entirely accessible.

One such character is Alboury, a stranger who approaches the compound in the dead of night. As alert to the dangers within as the Europeans are terrified of the world outside, he is a simple, local man armed with a solemn determination to do his duty. He has come for the body of his dead brother, nothing more, nothing less.

Osi Okerafor proves captivating as the stranger in the camp, gradually pulled into a scene of mutual suspicion and mind games. The actor won the BBC Television Acting Talent Search in 2003, and with this quiet, intense performance in the first act it’s easy to see why.

Unfortunately he’s drawn into the blanket hysteria of the second act, where the audience is bombarded by one over-the-top confrontation after another. Every declaration is painfully intense, which leaves the production lacking the moments of comparative peace that should serve to heighten points of real tension. As a result, the final breakdown of Leonie, and the events that follow, feel inconsequential and overwrought, imposing very little effect on the drama overall.

While Paul Hamilton’s mannered approach went down well during his time with the RSC, it keeps Horn firmly rooted on one note, and the clumsy characterisation of Leone leaves Rebecca Smith-Williams with very little to work with. Both Okerafor and Arkley show moments of great aptitude, it’s just a shame they find themselves buried under too much weight elsewhere.

The Vault at Southwark Playhouse is one of the most atmospheric spaces in the city, and here it elicits an ominous, claustrophobic feel to mark the play’s first London revival in more than 20 years. Riddled with themes of loneliness and death, so prominent in the work of French playwright Bernard-Marie Koltés, the performance conjures great atmosphere, but is sadly lacking in emotion.

Reviewer: Kat Halstead