Heart of Darkness

Joseph Conrad, adapted by Andrew Quick & Pete Brooks
imitating the dog
New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich
to

Conrad’s novel, written in 1899, has often been described as one of the seminal novels of the 20th century and has been the inspiration for many later works, including Francis Ford Coppola’s film Apocalypse Now.

But it is a difficult novel to stage, not least because of its intricate discussions on race and the Empire that may seem alien to a modern audience. And how do you put on stage a novel that spans a journey from London to Africa via a riverboat and which depicts disease, death and severed heads among the indigenous population?

imitating the dog is a company that likes a challenge and usually comes up with original ideas to tackle them. Hence this is not Conrad’s novel but rather an interpretation of the themes and the essence of the story. The journey begins in Africa, rather than England, with a black private detective called Charlie Marlow who is asked to travel across a ravaged Europe in an alternative time where, after WW2, no one was the victor to go to England to find a man called Kutz who seems to be controlling much of what is happening in the work camps that are now dotted across the European countryside.

imitating the dog has also come up with a novel way of performing the story by turning it into a live filmed piece. Using three suspended screens above the stage, one large backdrop screen and some very clever green screen technology, the actors are filmed saying the words but are projected onto cinematic shots that depict them walking down roads, driving through forests and eventually being shot, drowned etc.

The advantage of this is the company’s ability to change location rapidly and for a few actors to play many parts by altering the lighting and the distance of the shots rather than costume changes. The disadvantage is that the stage acting is rendered fairly superfluous, which makes you as the audience feel more removed from the characters and the actors and also makes it difficult to know whether you are meant to be just watching the screens or dividing your time between screen and stage.

In turn, the actors seem to find it sometimes hard to get under the skin of the characters they are playing. Keicha Greenidge plays mostly Marlow—a strong performance with a lot of depth—but then she has more to get hold of. Matt Prendergast similarly has a number of strong roles including Marlow’s driver Berensdorf and the elusive Kutz. The rest of the company find it a bit more difficult to bring out some of the characters in myriad names and faces.

Having said all this, it is a very slick production with the main stages of the story translated into the new locations and certainly the essence of Conrad’s novel is there and held to the light. The politics may have been rather simplified for some, but the points about colonialism and empire are put across, even if the arguments are rather one-sided.

The script is also captioned on the screens, which is sometimes helpful and sometimes distracting, especially when explanation is being projected on one screen and the spoken script on another.

It is all very clever and on the whole works well, but it is definately more of a filmic production than a stage production and the whole thing asks for an awful lot of concentration from its audience. It would also maybe have been better with some editing down—90 minutes without an interval would have been a better call. Often the actors come out of the story and go into scenes where the company are discussing how to stage the novel. Although interesting at the beginning, the points were got across long before this device was put to bed.

But it is certainly an interesting production, at times absorbing, definitely challenging and technically brilliant. So if you like intelligent and original theatre I would urge you to go and see it.

Suzanne Hawkes