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Heart of Darkness

Andrew Quick & Peter Brooks, with projection and video by Simon Wainwright, inspired by the novella by Joseph Conrad
imitating the dog, co-produced by Marche Teatro and Cast
Northern Stage, Newcastle
to

Adaptation? Deconstruction? Or reconstruction? Or perhaps deconstruction followed by reconstruction? Hmm…

Heart of Darkness follows the plot of Conrad’s 1899 novella but turns it round. The “heart of darkness” is not Africa, The Congo, but a contemporary war-torn Europe, and the voyage is up a European river. Marlow, the main protagonist, is not an English sailor captaining a river steamboat on the Congo River but a Congolese woman (Charles becomes Charlie), a private detective in Kinshasa, who is tasked to taking Kurtz (as mysterious here as in Conrad’s original) from mainland Europe to London.

A private detective called Marlow? Shades, perhaps, of Philip Marlowe, the seedy gumshoe created in the thirties by Raymond Chandler? Right at the beginning, in the right hand screen of a triptych above a stage-spanning green screen, there’s an image of the door to Marlow’s office, see from the inside, with a figure facing the door, as if about to enter. Very Chandler-esque.

But then I’m getting ahead of myself. I should first have said that the set consists of the aforementioned screens with, in front, two tables with chairs on them (on, not in front of them), and, in front of them and to either side, two video cameras mounted on tripod dollies. Images from these cameras are projected onto the screens.

But it’s not only the camera images which are projected: there are maps, clips from Apocalypse Now (and the documentary about the making of Apocalypse Now). There are animations and drawings, sometimes echoing the on-stage action. We see Boris Johnson at his most buffoonish and Nigel Farage at his most incendiary. And what are we to make of the images of and references to the life of Patrice Lumumba who, after all, did not become Prime Minister of The Congo until 1960?

And in the text there are verbatim quotes from the novella as well as references (even direct quotations) from Eliot’s The Waste Land, written 23 years after Heart of Darkness but apposite nonetheless.

Oh yes, and throughout—but more frequently in the second half—the cast come out of character and discuss how best to tell the story, which is, after all, of its time and imperialist and racist, even as it condemns colonialism. A black, female Marlow, yes, but what of capitalism? Is it not capitalism which lies behind the evils the novella pictures?

So that’s a play about writing the play in the middle of the play which turns the story upside down and inside out and is almost as much film as play. Scenes are even prefaced by cinematic instructions: “Day. In a car. We see…” and so on. Are they just setting out to confuse us?

Does this sound like an awful mix-up, a mish-mash of ideas, approaches, even art forms?

On one level it is. After watching it, I first thought that I would write that if you didn’t know the original book, then you would probably get lost, but thinking further about it, perhaps knowing the original actually gets in the way? Perhaps the changing thoughts and ideas expressed in the “making the play” interludes are meant to ease us away from the “but that’s not what Conrad wrote!” reaction, to make us focus on what we are seeing (and experiencing) in front of us rather than comparing it to what we remember from the book?

In some ways it’s a difficult piece, intricately constructed and intellectually demanding, whilst at the same time making a powerful emotional impact. It’s a really radical and exciting approach to adapting what is, in itself, a difficult novella which is, to modern sensibilities, in some ways quite unacceptable.

Adapting novels / novellas to the stage is always fraught with difficulties; this production find a unique way to do what many might find impossible.

The production tours to Cornerstone Arts Centre, Didcot (4–6 April); York Theatre Royal (9–10 April); New Wolsey, Ipswich (12–13 April); The Lowry, Salford Quays (16–18 April); Liverpool Playhouse (1–4 May) and Belgrade Theatre, Coventry (8–11 May).

Reviewer: Peter Lathan