Edinburgh Festival : DANS LA SOLITUDE DES CHAMPS DE COTON Drill Hall, Edinburgh

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The Independent Culture
In one of his novels, Henry James is famously unable to bring himself to name the manufactured product from which the immense wealth of his fictional family derives. That particular book is an orgy of indelicate explicitness, though, compared to Bernard-Marie Koltes's Dans La Solitude Des Champs de Coton. In this 1987 play, two unnamed strangers (the Dealer and the Client) meet at an unnamed desolate spot and refuse, on the one hand, to specify the commodities that are up for sale and, on the other, to designate the desires each may or may not be harbouring.

For the spectator, this should result in something it's all too easy to put a name to: howling boredom. Certainly, the prejudices of this reviewer are always activated by plays which are contrived so that the upper-storey of metaphor does not need to be supported by a solid ground floor of everyday reality. The symbolic aspects of the buyer/ seller relationship are, after all, brilliantly exploited in Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross, a work firmly anchored in a verifiable world of ulcers and useless real estate.

Nor were my expectations of Koltes's play improved by the cloth-eared English translation given out to ticket-holders so that the production can dispense with distracting surtitles: "For even sunlight is not so reliable as not to be liable to its own brand of equivocacy" is just one example of its aurally challenged direness. Even after detailed perusal of this depressing document, however, all but fluent French- speakers will find it difficult to follow the rhetorical intricacies of a script whose characters engage not so much in dialogue as in alternate monologues.

It says a lot, then, for the power of Patrice Chereau's staging of the piece that I left in a much better mood than I arrived. In the bleak murk of Edinburgh's Drill Hall, the audience are ranged on either side of the anonymous, no-man's-land arena on which this prowling, circling existential duel goes through its paces.

No matter how far they defect from each other into the shadows at the edge of this wide battlefield, there's a palpable magnetism between Pascal Greggory's tall, shaven-headed, vehemently fastidious Client and Chereau's smaller, dishevelled, professionally pleading Dealer. The wary game this pair play - in which each forces from the other admissions of inadequacy (lack of desire; lack of anything that might appease desire) - has a formal stateliness and a verbal elaboration that seem perversely at odds with the seedy danger of the setting where drugs and sex are more likely to be traded, you feel, than philosophical niceties.

The talk may be rarefied but Chereau keeps the air charged with the threat of physical violence. When coats are thrown on the floor, for example, you hear the sound of shattering glass. A play which even female critics have written of as though it were about "the human condition" seems to me quite avowedly about male relationships: the mutual fascination and mistrust and the violence into which the proceedings are toppling as the production ends.

There are two rather affected "pauses" where the spell is deliberately broken. The actors sit down in the audience for a breather and a few slugs of water and then indulge in some synchronised rock dancing before reassuming their roles. If this is meant to be an alienation effect, then it backfired on a man sitting near me who roundly declared that this was the best bit of the show. For me, it was the one miscalculation in a staging of impressive intensity.

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