John Malkovich Explores Two Levels of a Koltès Character

Antonia Tsamouris*

In the Solitude of Cotton Fields by Bernard-Marie Koltès, translated by Judith Miller. Directed by Timofey Kulyabin. Dramaturgy by Roman Dolhnskiy. Stage & Costume Design Oleg Golovko. Video design by Alexander Lobanov. Sound design by Timofei Pastukhov. Lighting by Oskars Paulins. Co-produced by Dailes Theatre, Riga, Latvia and Ekaterina Yakimova. Cast: Ingeborga Dapkunaite and John Malkovich. Staged at Onassis Stegi, Athens, Greece, Feb 9 to 12, 2023.

In the Solitude of Cotton Fields was written by Bernard-Marie Koltès in 1987, only two years before the French playwright’s untimely death. The play, which was first directed by Patrice Chéreau, one of Koltès’s closest collaborators and friends, encapsulates the playwright’s theatre aesthetic. With its long monologues and lyric language, it underlines the loneliness that the two characters are confronted with. Reminiscent rather of two parallel monologues than of a dialogue, the two characters, the Dealer and the Client, try to speak with each other, but they are not being sincere and end up lying about what they really think and desire. In the end, they are more confined within themselves and less able to communicate. Koltès’s play evokes the everyday cruelty that arises in modern societies, resulting in a loneliness which cannot change despite the money or the power that someone may have. He succeeds in demonstrating the everyday problems of modern city life, although distancing himself from realistic writing.

John Malkovich and Ingeborga Dapkunaite alternating in the roles of the Dealer and the Client. Photo: Māris Morkāns

In some dark alley, somewhere in a big city, The Dealer and the Client are bargaining with each other for something that is never clearly defined. The playwright maintains this endless give-and-take, regardless of what is at stake, to be the foundation for all modern societies. In this never ending deal, the roles of the Client and the Dealer are often reversed. Koltès stresses that all human relationships are based on an unstoppable negotiation, which varies every time; it could be an economic one, or a political, personal, ethical, social or even sexual one. Often enough, the bargain is with one’s own self, as is also implied in the text. Koltès’s non-realistic way of writing, using many symbols, leaves his play open to the possibility that it is a monologue between one person’s conscious and subconscious. This inner dualism implied in the play emphasizes a personal disruption that modern people often experience due to their loneliness.

John Malkovich and Ingeborga Dapkunaite performing on stage and on camera, projecting their inner feelings and thoughts. Photo: Māris Morkāns

Timofey Kulyabin’s production of Koltès’s play premiered at Riga, Latvia, in 2022 and later went on tour, including a visit to Athens’s Onassis Stegi. Kulyabin based his direction on the various dualities of the play. First, the ambiguous setting of the performance: it could be indoors or outdoors, real or illusory, familiar or foreign. When the performance opens, there is a bedroom and a bathroom, but later the action is transferred outside. In a dreamlike way, the street becomes the bedroom and the alley becomes an elevator, blurring the boundaries between outdoors and indoors. Oleg Golovko’s stage design managed to reflect the inner suffocation that Koltès’s characters are experiencing, no matter where or with whom they are.

John Malkovich and Ingeborga Dapkunaite contribute with their playing to the blurring of the scenic space, which becomes both outdoors and indoors. Photo: Māris Morkāns

The second duality in Kulyabin’s mise-en-scène relates to the audience’s vision, making use both of the dramatic space and the cinematic one, through video projections that merge the two in one. It was thus suggested that the two people on stage could have been one, split in two: one’s ego and alter ego. That way the director attributed to the performance the psychological and social meanings that already existed in Koltès’s writing. As Maria M. Delgado argues, “there is much that is never openly stated in Koltés’s plays, an undercurrent remains unarticulated. All is expressed through metaphor and suggestion” (31). This perception was much reinforced by their non-gender specific costumes, as well as their similarity in movement.

Last, the video projections also served Kulyabin’s epic theatre approach. While distancing the audience from their feelings, he at the same time placed them in the position of an active thinker in relation to what was happening on stage. So, the video projections helped the director to maintain the Brechtian alienation effect. Kulyabin further emphasized his Brechtian approach by alternating the two actors in their roles, making it almost impossible for the audience to sympathize or identify with either of them.

John Malkovich as Koltès’s character trying to quiet his subconscious. Photo: Māris Morkāns

Nonetheless, John Malkovich’s evocative presence on stage was almost hypnotizing for the audience. Fully in control of his body as well as his voice, Malkovich performed exquisitely both for the stage and the screen. Alternating between the roles of the Dealer and of the Client, he also balanced between his character(s), namely the ego and the alter ego. His long experience with the camera helped him greatly, as the pre-recorded extracts showed. Ingeborga Dapkunaite, too, succeeded in working as Malkovich’s scenic alter ego. In her sexless figure she became “the other” to whatever her partner stood for. The lighting (Oskars Paulins) along with the video projections (Alexander Lobanov) created the impression of an inner darkness, a darkness that results from the way modern societies are structured, based on bargains that end up in losing one’s soul.

That Kulyabin’s mise-en-scène kept the audience distanced from their feelings, as mere spectators of a transaction that occupies another human being’s soul, made Koltès’s lyrical and symbolic text even more tragic. People were watching other people struggling with their own inner existence. So, the audience was confronted with the consequences of their own actions, or rather their own inaction.

Kulyabin, a young and promising Russian director both in theatre and in opera, has left Russia due to his criticism of the Ukraine war and is now living in Europe. The cruelty of this imperialistic war reflects the unending give-and-take which Koltès discusses in his play and Kulyabin exquisitely creates on stage.


Delgado, Maria M. “Bernard Marie Koltès: A Personal Alphabet.” A Journal of Performance and Art. May 2011. Vol. 33, no. 2: pp. 26-35. 

*Antonia Tsamouris holds a BA in Theatre Studies (Aristotle University of Thessaloniki) and an MA in Drama and Theatre Studies (Royal Holloway University of London). She has a PhD on Harold Pinter’s oeuvre and a post-Doctorate on Edward Albee’s theatre, both from the School of English, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. Member of the Greek section of IATC and Member in the Board of Directors at Ed. Albee Society she has contributed articles and reviews to many magazines and books in Greece and abroad.

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