Interview: Directors Alexander Zeldin and Kimberley Sykes

French playwright Bernard-Marie Koltès, who died in 1989, is regarded in continental Europe as one of the most important writers of the past century. But with the exception of Roberto Zucco – inspired by the life of an Italian serial killer and staged to great acclaim by the RSC in 1997 – his work has largely been unknown in the UK.

Now, talented young directors Kimberly Sykes and Alexander Zeldin are hoping to change this state of affairs with their productions of two of Koltès’s most interesting and challenging plays, In the Solitude of Cotton Fields and Black Battles with Dogs. These will run simultaneously at Tristan Bates Theatre and Southwark Playhouse, from April to May.

In the Solitude of Cotton Fields, directed by Sykes, shows an enigmatic encounter between two men. What begins as a play for power and territory becomes darker and more unsettling as the pair reveal their vulnerabilities and doubts.

Black Battles with Dogs focuses on three Europeans isolated on the construction site of a western company in the heart of Africa, surrounded by barbed wire. When a mysterious man penetrates the camp and demands the body of his brother who died that day in unknown circumstances, events take a disturbing turn. Zeldin’s production is the first UK revival of the play for more than 20 years.

Sykes is a graduate from the directing BA at Rose Bruford College. Her previous work includes directing the world premiere of Toby Young’s new opera at The Kings Head and assisting on the critically acclaimed West End run of Arthur Miller’s Broken Glass and Julia Pascal’s The Dybbuk in New York. Zeldin, who trained in France, Poland and the UK, has directed theatre and opera throughout the world. His most high profile productions to date include a re-staging of Tyspin and Gergieve’s production of Wagner’s Ring Cycle at the Royal Opera House. met with Zeldin and Sykes on the day that Black Battles with Dogs opened, to find out what first attracted them to Koltès and to hear about the challenges and pleasures of bringing his work to a new audience.

How did you discover Koltès?

Kimberley Sykes: I was asked to direct Solitude by Eric, the producer, who had seen my profile for the Young Vic Genesis Directors Project. At that time, I didn’t know Koltès; but once I had read his work, I thought it was amazing. I have always had a fascination with the ‘Other’ and what grabbed me – as English, white and middle-class – was that I’ve never really known what it is to be in a cultural or social situation and truly feel like an outsider. I understand how Koltès felt about being French – like a foreigner in your own country. I was also born into a society that had an empire and which colonised other countries. That was what fascinated me: what does it mean to experience the marginal?

Alexander Zeldin: I was educated in French and first read Koltès as a teenager. He resonated with me like punk music and tapped into something that I didn’t understand but felt at a very basic level. I came back to him two years ago. Growing up speaking French, a language that wasn’t my own, gave me a strong point of identification with a lot of Koltès’s characters. He’s fascinated with people who speak in another language, because it allows them to cut through all the bullshit.

What particularly appealed about the plays you are directing?

KS: I’m constantly trying to find a way to make the everyday epic and mythic, to transcend boundaries. I’m not interested in naturalism for its own sake because I don’t really know what we can learn from it. And there was something about the place in Solitude – where time is also abstract – that interested me in terms of what could happen in it. The play is full of borders. I live in South London on a nice road with filled with nice coffee shops and nice bakeries. But turn on to the next road and you’re on Peckham High Street, with music everywhere and different smells, cultures and languages. It has a different pace and rhythm of life. That was what interested me about the play: what happens when you go round the corner? What happens when you go from one space to another? How closely connected are they? I wanted to magnify that.

London is a good example of somewhere full of cultural borders, isn’t it?

KS: I love the fact that, where I am now, people live on top of each other. I lived in Ealing for a while and what frustrated me was that it was just full of white, middle-class people – very conservative, most of them. It just felt dead. There was nothing happening in the space. Nobody talked to each other. Whereas, in South London, you can walk past a playground and see British, French, Asian and African kids all playing together. The more I can do to bring that to people’s attention, to collide worlds together, the better.

Why did you want to direct Black Battles, Alex?

AZ: Probably more than anything else, what attracted me was this very touching story of people in a place that is a metaphor for something bigger – a construction site in the middle of Africa, surrounded by barbed wire, with white people in the middle of it, terrified of the outside world. Their walls are also between each other. I was just attracted to their terrifying solitude and terrifying intimacy. But what drew me above all was the character of Leonie, who comes to Africa and recognises in the black Africans the outsiders they are in this environment. She recognises something of it in herself. This seemed to me to be a very direct, concrete and profound way to talk about wanting to have a life. I was also interested in directing a play by someone who is considered in Europe to be one of the most important writers of the past 100 years, but is hard to produce and even harder to successfully communicate to an audience here.

Why do you think that has been the case?

AZ: The language, the way his characters speak, is driven by real obsession. So there’s an immense risk of making it sound poetic, flowery and impenetrable when, in fact, it’s extremely concrete. In France, Koltès is seen as someone who invented a completely new style of dramatic writing. He was interested in spoken language, by particular kinds of characters, and travelled a lot. The places and states he writes about can be challenging to evoke. Koltès once said that a character should never say, ‘I’m sad’. They should say ‘I’m going for a walk.’ Theatre isn’t a didactic medium; it isn’t just about telling someone something. You should always find a way of saying something using its opposite. That tension between mountains and valley, that border between two things, is where something interesting can happen.

KS: I agree that one of the biggest challenges is to make his language not appear like poetry. It’s like Shakespeare. The last thing I want is for someone to sit in the audience and go: ‘Oh, I liked how they found that trochee’ or ‘don’t those rhyming couplets work well?’ I don’t want them thinking that. I want them to be experiencing the play. There’s a certain amount of work that you need to do on Koltès’s text – on his poetry – to both understand how he writes and then to be able throw that away. It’s about making it relatable. It’s about asking yourself: how do I make it concrete and real?

Some reviews of British productions of Koltès’s plays have argued that the heavily symbolic nature of French theatre has been an obstacle to his success here. Would you agree?

AZ: Koltès would have been very angry if someone did something symbolic with his plays. He was extremely clear when he said that theatre is already an abstract enough thing. Because it’s already ephemeral and make-believe, you should be very concrete within it. Obviously, that’s not the same thing as realistic. Concrete and realistic are easy to confuse and I think that, actually, being realistic is the most absurd form, an insulting thing. If you look at the style of Patrice Chereau – who directed many of Koltès’s plays – and his famous work on the Ring Cycle in the 70s, he never confused the two. And I think Kimberley and I would both hope to avoid that pitfall. I don’t see any reason why a British audience wouldn’t be excited by or engaged with Black Battles.

KS: The work is also really funny. With Solitude, it’s all been about devising, because there are no stage directions. You have to allow the actors’ instincts to come out, listen to them and then shape them. And the cast is coming out with the most hilarious things. At times, I’ve been rolling around the floor, laughing at moments I never thought I’d find funny. It’s important to hold that out to the audience. Solitude isn’t a laborious lecture. It’s got life. It’s about the ridiculousness of human behaviour. What’s guided me a lot is Koltès saying that his words should be spoken as a child reciting a lecture while suffering the urgent need to pee. For me, that’s exactly how you work with his language!

Do Black Battles and Solitude differ stylistically or tonally?

AZ: Mine is closer to the rules of a normal play, in the sense that it has four characters and a clear setting. It’s more what people might be used to, in that respect. That was one of the things that attracted me to it. It was an interesting starting point for me. But, of course, there are things in it that you’ll never have seen if you haven’t seen Koltès before.

KS: I like to work with music. I grew up playing the violin and my stepdad’s a jazz pianist. When I stopped playing and began directing I didn’t understand the relationship between the two. It’s only been in the past few years that I’ve gone, ‘My God, it’s the same thing.’ When a concert is good it has the same effect on me as watching a piece of theatre where the actors are working together in an incredible way. And what I try to do is use the same methods to bring a production together. Solitude makes sense to me as a piece of music. I see it as a duet with movements, with repeating motifs and the development of different themes. I’ve tried to translate that as much as possible into the physical work of the actors. How do you make a space musical? That musical awareness, in the text, is how I think the play differs to his other works, except The Night Just Before The Forests, which is an incredible solo.

AZ: They’re all very different, aren’t they? That’s an important point. My hope is that we’ll get people interested so that more of his plays are staged.

Has listening to each other talk about Koltès today been interesting?

KS: God, yeah!

AZ: I feel that we’re very conscious of doing different plays. There’s not a uniform approach to a writer like Koltès as there might be if you’re doing certain of Shakespeare’s or Chekhov’s plays.

KS: It’s fascinating that this is happening at the same time. We found out, literally, only a month ago that we were both working on Koltès. I think there’s something happening with young directors in this country: the influences from abroad, the types of theatre we’re seeing. You watch Ostermeier’s Hamlet and you go, ‘Oh, my God’.

AZ: I could not agree more. I’ve always been attracted to working abroad, which is where I mainly direct now. I find British theatre culture to be less diverse than elsewhere, so it’s nice to meet a colleague of a similar age with a similar outlook. I think there is an increasing number of us who believe that another theatre is possible, a theatre that is not just about critical or audience consensus; one that is confrontational and deals with people on a very intimate level, that feels a responsibility to do that every single time and which is removed from ‘polite’ conversation. And Koltès is precisely the kind of writer who does that.


Black Battles with Dogs is at Southwark Playhouse from 11 April to 5 May; In the Solitude of Cotton Fields is at the Tristan Bates Theatre from 17 April to 12 May. For more information and to buy tickets, see:

Southwark Playhouse:

Tristan Bates Theatre:

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