Under the Radar 2012: Director Radosław Rychcik on “In the Solitude of the Cotton Fields”
“I’ve been thinking of this play for a long time, because this play of Koltès’s is considered very difficult to stage. And it also rhymed in with the stage of my life I found myself in, that I was going through and the way that I felt at this moment,” Polish director Radosław Rychcik told me. “Because to me it’s a play about the fear of meeting someone else, another person. The dread of intimacy.”
This was back in September 2010, and Rychcik and I were sitting in the mezzanine lounge of the Ace Hotel in Portland, Oregon, near where Rychcik, and the company behind his production of Barnard-Marie Koltès’s In the Solitude of the Cotton Fields, were staying during their appearance at the Portland Institute of Contemporary Arts‘s TBA Festival. Rychcik first came to the attention of American audiences when his production/adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s Versus: In the Jungle of Cities played the 2010 Under the Radar Festival to mixed reviews. But it’s In the Solitude of the Cotton Fields that’s really established him as an important new voice on the international scene, and it’s already hit most of the major North American destinations, playing REDCAT, Vancouver, B.C.’s PuSH Festival, and at Seattle’s On the Boards, before finally making it to New York as part of the Public’s 2012 Under the Radar Festival (Jan. 5-14 at La Mama; tickets $20).
It was one of the stranger interviews I’ve done. I’d met Rychcik a day or two before and we’d chatted quite a bit, but due to the early hour of the interview and, perhaps, his being overly exuberant at what I’m pretty sure he said was a Scissor Sisters concert the night before, Rychcik requested to answer questions in Polish, translated by Dorota Sobstel, his assistant. So I dutifully posed them to him directly in English, and waited for her to translate his answers for me, unless he disagreed with her or wanted to clarify, in which case he’d pipe in in English himself. I’d also invited along Jonathan Walters, the artistic director of Portland’s Hand2Mouth Theatre, who knew more than me about contemporary Polish theater, having spent several years in the late Nineties working in Poland.
Only 30, Rychcik is a young Polish director whose international reputation has essentially skyrocketed over the course of only a couple years. Originally a student of Polish literature at Warsaw University, Rychcik changed course after experiencing Polish avant-garde theatre in college. He went on to study directing and worked with the likes of Krystian Lupa, perhaps Poland’s most famous director, serving as an assistant on Lupa’s internationally celebrated Factory 2, a seven-plus-hour theatrical spectacle about Warhol’s milieu.
The backstory of the show is actually somewhat amusing. In the Solitude… was originally produced at Teatr Stefana Zeromskiego (Stefan Zeromski Theatre), a Polish regional theatre in Kielce. Seeking to offer something more substantive to young audiences, company member Wojciech Niemczyk had helped arrange for Rychcik, his former classmate, to come direct a show. Along with Tomasz Nosinski, another former university classmate who also appeared in Versus, the three spent only three weeks rehearsing In the Solitude before it opened. The band the Natural Born Chillers—little known in Poland before Rychcik discovered them playing a club gig—were invited in for only the last five days, during which they composed the entire live score for the piece.
“I just heard them play in a nightclub and I thought they were just amazing and excellent,” Rychcik explained of the band, “and that their music itself created this space for this play to take place, because it already implied where the actors could stand, and where the action could go on.”
That a play with such a cobbled together production schedule and history has now gone on to tour the world to acclaim is all the more surprising given its source text. Bernard-Marie Koltès was a respected experimental dramatist in France before he died in 1991. But if he’s rarely produced in America, it’s because frankly, his work is so very French: abstract, lyrical, obscure. In the Solitude of the Cotton Fields, for instance, is just an extended dialogue between two men known only as the “Dealer” and the “Client,” taking place in a nondescript alley. What is actually being sought is never made explicit (though the title contains a pretty clear allusion to drugs).
It’s the sort of thing that blew my mind when I was an undergrad and would greedily buy stacks of used avant-garde European literature to consume in late=night cigarette-and-caffeine fueled reading sessions, but which now usually strikes me as needlessly opaque, and pretentious. Rychcik’s genius lies in having seen in such a script something very interesting, and having the creativity to actually realize it onstage in a compelling and powerful way.
His production doesn’t unfold as a “play” so much as a spoken word rock concert. Nosinski (the Dealer) and Niemczyk (the Client) deliver their lines directly to the audience as though dueling front-men for the band, dressed in plain dark suits reminiscent of Tarantino goons (though, given the scenario and staging, I have to admit that they also look quite a bit like the Blues Brothers, sans shades and hats). Backed by the rock quartet and abstracted from a dialogue, the text becomes a series of monologues of ferocious intensity.
“Koltès’s play is written for two actors and it has a lot of hints of where it takes place,” Rychcik said. “So the setting is night, a desolate place—a back street, a totally isolated spot. But what I was trying to do is totally get rid of this literal translation of the place, get rid of literalism [altogether]. My idea for the adaptation of the text was adding the music into it, because with the music, this kind of talking about a meeting of, in this situation, a dealer and a client, is always very performative. Because it’s always a performance of my fear of solitude, my fear of proximity to the other human being, and I think this kind of dialogue is very accelerated and enriched by the music that was added.”
What’s so surprising about Rychcik’s In the Solitude, though, isn’t the concept, no matter how novel or effective: it’s the performances and characterizations that Rychcik gets out of his actors. His subtle understanding of the nuances of the script, and how it reveals the fears, self-loathing, paranoia, and combativeness occurring during the transaction, causes him to take his actors in completely the opposite direction from what you might expect. The Dealer’s monologues about the offense he takes at the impudence of his would-be client aren’t played as self-reflective threats, à la The Godfather; instead, they become frightened, wounded expressions of desperation (the dealer, like the client, is an addict to the transaction), while the Client’s very desperation, the sense that he knows he has to purchase from the Dealer, empowers him. A game with a fixed outcome is only worth playing to deny to the other his sense of victory.
Transformed through Rychcik’s production, the needlessly obscure language becomes a poetic evocation of the emotional state of the characters. Songs, in other words.
“Actually, it was very interesting to find out later that Koltès himself thought of this dialogue between the two people in the play as a kind of two blues singers,” he added, “people who are singing their ballads to each other. So actually the whole text was considered by him as a song.”
An earlier version of this article appeared on TheSunBreak.com in January 2011. See here for all of Culturebot’s coverage of Under the Radar 2012.