Theatre: The Bruce Lee of drama

Words were like weapons in the hands of Bernard-Marie Koltes. No wonder, says Jeffrey Wainwright, the French dramatist's latest translator, it's taken almost 10 years since his death from Aids for his work to be grappled in English
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THE STREET is not particularly mean but this figure you've noticed ahead doesn't look like somebody you'd want to meet. You quicken, or slow, or veer, as imperceptibly as possible, to ensure your lines don't intersect. In this geometry is a tangle of anxieties: you will be asked for money, robbed, assaulted, raped, murdered, sold to, preached at, talked to. It happens.

This, the familiar fear of coincidence, is the simple starting-point for the French writer Bernard-Marie Koltes's remarkable play from 1987, In the Solitude of the Cotton Fields, which opens at the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow next week. Here the two characters do intersect, each claiming that the encounter is willed by the other's desire or design, and whether what occupies the next 90 minutes is, as its first director Patrice Chereau said, a debate between 18th-century philosophes or the entry of the clowns, the sense of incipient violence squats in the viscera throughout. It is a verbal pavane that could at any moment become a knife fight.

Of course, if you were Bruce Lee - one of Koltes's heroes - the situation would be straightforwardly resolved: you could walk anywhere without breaking stride. Koltes once wrote a study of Lee's film The Last Dragon: one section is called "Le kung-fu et les mots", and it is easy to see how he understands words as weapons, and especially how he sees a parallel between the ritual formulations of highly structured rhetorical exchanges and the movements of martial art. It was this highly wrought verbal formality - so apparently incongruous in the garbage-strewn underpass world where the characters Koltes calls simply The Dealer and The Client meet - that first drew me to translate the work.

As Lluis Pasqual, former director of the Theatre d'Europe in Paris, has said, Koltes's language contains "an architecture of the emotions articulated in a musical way". The long speeches which the characters exchange have the combative wit in which nothing is missed, no weakness unprobed, characteristic of Diderot's dialogues Rameau's Nephew and Jacques the Fatalist. They are intricate syntactical structures, ruthlessly acute in their logical progression, but, with the reiteration of key words and images, mesmerically rhythmical. The piece is a duel cast as a deal, for Koltes's underlying implication is that a commercial transaction, with its potential for exploitation and fear of humiliation, is a contemporary paradigm for human relationships.

AS THE Dealer and the Client fence guardedly around the undefined but eroticised matter of what is being offered and what is wanted, they do touch the usual expectancies of what might bond them - fraternity, mothers, childhood recollection - but none connect. "Try to reach out to me," says the Client, "you won't touch me... There is no love, there is no love." All they seem to have in common is their absorption in the parabolas inscribed by each other's speeches.

Diderot and Bruce Lee: Bernard-Marie Koltes was obviously a writer of eclectic interests. He also translated The Winter's Tale, while Hamlet was a figure of recurrent interest for him. Now, nearly 10 years after his death from Aids in 1989, at the age of 41, the English-language theatre is starting to take a sustained interest in a playwright long regarded as a major force on the Continent.

Philip Prowse's Glasgow Solitude will next week join Koltes's last play, Roberto Zucco, currently part of the RSC's Stratford rep (in an excellent staging by James Macdonald and a deeply thought translation by Martin Crimp), as the second major presentation of his work in this country; and there's more to come: a BBC radio production of Solitude next March; Key West in Dublin sometime soon. Yet Zucco alone had 17 separate productions in Germany in the five years following its 1990 Berlin premiere.

Koltes himself was a restless traveller, spending long periods in West Africa, Latin America and New York. His mobility is reflected in work that constantly migrates from setting to setting and style to style - from the confined unity of Solitude, for example, to the action-movie parody that is one aspect of Zucco. There's a productive tension, too, between the French metropolitan culture of philosophical debate and characters and actions set on the margins - in the Third World, on the rough edges of Western cities.

What Koltes does not provide, though, is sociological realism. The anti- hero Roberto Zucco escapes from prison and goes on a brief spree of robbery and murder, including that of his mother. But what is so unsettling is that Zucco remains unpredictable and inscrutable. The Old Gentleman looks an inevitable victim but Zucco helps him with a sudden tenderness; later, he shoots a child in cold blood. In the RSC production, Zubin Varla's blank, slightly bemused countenance cannot be read for motive or inner life. We see, says Macdonald, how society demonises and mythologises Zucco, how he plays a role in our seemingly necessary anxiety about criminality, but also how, with our familiar "psychological sub-structure done away with", we don't have the illusory comfort of "understanding" him. The play gives us, says Crimp, "no point of rest".

MARTIN CRIMP calls Roberto Zucco "a language machine" - by which he means that the play is "propelled by the use of language which is not afraid to be excessive or lyrical"; Macdonald adds that the characters "invent themselves through language". Their perception certainly applies to Solitude, where the characters are only defined by what they say in the real time of the play and the sardonic pleasure they take in its elaboration. Also, importantly, they are defined by what the one says about the other: in what sense, outside of their respective interpretations of each other, is one a "dealer" and the other a "client"? The Paris programme for Chereau's marvellous 1995 production - his third attempt at the piece - quoted Jean- Luc Godard's question and answer: "Where do you live? In language" and Diderot's Jacques the Fatalist: "How did they meet? By chance. Where have they come from? From wherever they were last. Where are they going? Who ever knows where he is going?"

This is the metaphysical condition of Koltes's characters, but the moment an actor steps on stage, the character can no longer be abstract. One theatrical fascination of his work is the dizzying openness it presents to actors and director. The characters live in time too: a play must end. How Philip Prowse and his actors choose to realise this condition, and Koltes's enigmatic ending, I can scarcely wait to see.

'In the Solitude of the Cotton Fields', 18 March-l1 April, Citizens Theatre, Glasgow (0141-429 0022). 'Roberto Zucco', in rep, RSC The Other Place, Stratford-upon-Avon (01789 295623).