Review: Black Battles with Dogs

Written for The Stage

With a cast made up of RSC ensemble members and RADA graduates, the pedigree of this production of Black Battles with Dogs cannot be denied. Frustrating, then, that for a large proportion of Bernard-Marie Koltes’ stilted play these quality performers just tread water.

Rebecca Smith-Williams and Paul Hamilton in Black Battles With Dogs at Southwark Playhouse, London (previous pictures shows Osi Okerafor) Photo: Oliver Zeldin

Black Battles with Dogs places a foreman, his Parisian wife-to-be and his second in command within the high walls of a French construction site in Africa. Relationships begin to break down, not only between the Westerners and increasingly antsy natives, but inside the walls too, because apparently it’s not about race.

This makes all the racial slurring and patronising attempts at communication seem grotesquely gratuitous. Indeed, what Koltes’ play is about remains unclear, as characters do little but pour their hearts out and the narrative goes nowhere.

Into this quagmire Alexander Zeldin has pulled out a crafted production that athletically traverses the Southwark vault space. Joseph Arkley is electric and scary as live-wire Cal, making the character’s racist and misogynistic outbursts comprehensible through his compelling delivery. With her pearly white skin and red Pre-Raphaelite locks, Rebecca Smith-Williams seduces our attention while her intense performance transcends Leonie’s silliness to draw genuine compassion from us.

Runs until 5th May 2012