Comparisons to Samuel Beckett’s ‘Waiting For Godot’ are conceivably going to be unavoidable for Bernard Marie-Koltès play, In The Solitude of Cotton Fields, which recently opened at the La Mama Courthouse Theatre in Melbourne. However, this originally French play from 1986 packs a different punch to its absurdist counterparts.
The show follows The Dealer, an energetic Tom Dent, and The Client, played by Rob Meldrum, whose experience glimmers on the stage, as they meet in the corner of a dark night in order to make a deal. What kind of deal? What are they dealing? What is the purpose of this deal? These are all questions that pervade us, as each character essentially swaps philosophical monologues on the theoretical concept of a “deal”, without outwardly stating what this deal involves. This creates an unawareness of whether it is the audience’s job to subjectively figure out the meaning of the play, or whether to take it at face value and accept a more absurdist view. Both actors deserve copious credit for memorising such verbose, and metaphor-heavy dialogue that at times, can go over one’s head. However, it is important to note that the play’s original language is French, and it’s possible that the English translation may not represent the work with as much clarity.
The incredibly sparse set, which comprised of just a milk crate, felt appropriate for the play, as anything too elaborate would have taken away from the intricate dialogue and the character study unfolding before us. The costumes, too, were minimalistic yet fitting; The Dealer, in his casual rags, and The Client in a button-up shirt and trousers.
Despite and considering the play’s visual starkness and heavy verbiage, one must imagine that this was not an easy show to direct, which Richard Murphet does with striking sophistication, creating a beautiful relationship between blocking and lighting, with credit to lighting designer, John Collopy. These two elements intertwine to create ominous shadows on the walls of the theatre, assisting the idea of the setting being an atmospheric and dark evening. So too, does a smoke machine, allowing reminiscence of a cold, urban area. The sound design, by Adam Casey, while used minimally in its dissonant crackling and slightly orchestral tones, creates and complements moments of tension, however, further exploration and usage of sound wouldn’t have gone astray.
The play has multiple prevailing themes that are explored throughout, particularly that of desire, to the point where there is an almost homoerotic energy between the two characters. While much of the blocking involves them staying at a distance, the moments when they do come within close proximity to one another, even touching, are the strongest in the show. Perhaps The Dealer and The Client need each other; in their mutual loneliness, possibly continuing their bickering solely as an excuse to retain the company and affection of another human being. Indeed, a fear of intimacy is a particularly frequent terror for The Client, as he explains the way in which friendship is inherently a relationship of violence. This and the concept that “when two men cross paths, they must choose between kindness or violence”, are arguably the play’s key themes. It’s easy to question: will this exchange end in violence? Even as the lights go down at the very end, there is still a sense of uncertainty of the fate of these characters. How much longer do they stay there? Does the deal ever get done? What is the endgame?
In The Solitude of Cotton Fields is a play that sparks many questions which, considering its heavy themes, will likely be subjectively interpreted by different audiences. Given its sometimes-garrulous dialogue and its lack of a traditional narrative, it is expected that In The Solitude of Cotton Fields may not be a play for everyone, but perhaps for those already immersed in drama spheres and interested in more esoteric forms of theatre.