In the Solitude of Cotton Fields
Tristan Bates Theatre
A row of clothing lines the edges of the black box theatre, a chronology of coats that eventually pile heavily in the centre of the room. We're in a nondescript urban landscape, half-way between two different worlds, where a nameless transaction is about to occur.
In The Solitude of Cotton Fields (Dans la Solitude des Champs de Coton) is an encounter between a Dealer (Alexander Roberts), attempting to tease out desire, and a Client (Christopher Hughes), toying with fear and the catharsis of refusal. It's an endurance game where words gain dramatic weight, a confrontation that is sculptural as much as it is rhetorical. A play that teases out the variables of the free market economy whilst at the same time attempts to explore the nature of transactions, toying with the theatricality of an empty space and using language as an architectural element to construct meaning.
French playwright Bernard-Marie Koltes (1948-1989) has left an important trace in the Franco-German theatrical landscape, only making its way in the UK in the late nineties. His writing, heavily influenced by his own life experiences (he travelled heavily in the former French colonies and experienced ghettoisation of Arabs during the Algerian War in his hometown of Metz), is vehemently anti-naturalistic, seeking to deconstruct one emotion, desire or place through a highly crafted and complex dramatic language.
His plays capitalize on the potency of the stage to ritualize written drama, relying on a particular semiotic and a theatricality where ideologies become characters and fragments become entire narratives. Koltes's writings, from plays to poems, carry his complex understanding of rhetoric, which he learnt from Jesuit Masters at Metzs Saint Clement School, as well as his interest in eighteenth century theatre and the American cinema pioneered by Welles and Hitchcock.
In the Solitude Of Cotton Fields carries some of the usual traits of a Koltes text, but it is distinctly influenced by Absurdist theatre whilst carrying some of the theatricality and versatility of writers like Molière. It toys with pragmatics, shifting between the poetic and the dramatic, but is underpinned by a belief in futility of language to express anything concrete; in the encounter between the Dealer and the Client, there is no materiality. Each attempts to lure the other, to second-guess their desires, and ultimately fails, repeatedly. The tension surmounts in the piling up of these failures, the development of the transaction.
In Kimberley Sykes's direction, the play is infused with a particular, and at times peculiar, physicality; the Dealer is eccentric and playful whilst the Client is tendentious and calculated and twitchy. If Roberts and Hughes attempt to embody these qualities and flesh out some of the text's own theatricality with skill, the lack of precision in their performance style also blunt the structure and language of the play itself. Although Sykes's adaptation attempts to remove both specificity and naturalism, it's held back by its tenacious attempt to over-stylize.
With so much emphasis on gesture, and a lack of character specificity, In the Solitude of Cotton Fields is a tamed adaptation; it filters through some of Koltes's linguistic dynamism, but seems to overlook the semiotics of the stage. Roberts and Hughes handle this stylization with poise, fleshing out at times intriguing and potent characters, but there's a lack of attention paid to the building of the tension in the encounter and an unclear logic to the way they inhabit and behave onstage. The visual emphasis on clothing and the relationship that has to both the characters as well as the internal discourse of the play is unclear, and displaces some of the text's precision and tension. It seems that this adaptation of In the Solitude of Cotton Fields hasn't quite grappled with the play's anti-naturalism.
That being said, there's something equally potent about this adaptation of In the Solitude of Cotton Fields; there's a distinct emphasis on the arguments which both Dealer and Client use, and a potent articulation of Koltes's intriguing dramatic style, that although overwhelmed by stylization and an incomplete directorial concept, still manages to craft an intriguing encounter filled with meaning.
Reviewer: Diana Damian