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Heart of Darkness

Andrew Quick and Pete Brooks (adapted from the novella of Joseph Conrad)
imitating the dog
The Lowry (Quays Theatre)
to

imitating the dog’s decision to adapt Joseph Conrad’s classic novella for a 21st century audience results in a production which, whilst not totally successful, is engaging, informative and provocative.

The central device is to present the work as a film script in various stages of development and production. The actors work in front of a green screen, their performances being captured and projected against digitised backdrops, high above their heads, so that we watch stage and screen simultaneously. The technical novelty of this holds the attention throughout, but one might argue that it distracts from the important historical and political threads being set out for our consideration.

Intercut with scenes from the movie, we witness cast and director in heated debates over how best to rework the 1899 text to give it modern relevance.

“I’m saying that in 2019, we cannot make a show where all black voices are silent."

Their collective choice is an Apocalypse Now for our times (Brexiting times, unflatteringly portrayed by Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage and mooning revellers—all blessedly fleeting images). Their Charlie Marlow is a black, female private eye from Kinshasa, sent to retrieve the rogue trading agent, Kurtz, from that heart of darkness known as London.

The development process, as depicted on stage, is quite democratic—all views are heard and considered. This has its strengths and weaknesses—lots of interesting ideas are put forward, but no one seems in overall charge. This results in a play with perhaps too many driving ideas. We find ourselves in an alternative history, one where the Second World War in Europe was never truly won or lost. America and Russia wiped each other out. How?

“We never find out.”

The authorities in the DRC want Kurtz because he has worked out the ultimate logic of capitalism—set down in a document whose existence Marlow will deny. Kurtz has seen how to turn the world into a giant network of labour camps: a holocaust aiming at maximisation of profit, not extermination. The ultimate, mathematically-derived, efficiency of production is all that matters:

“I got rid of the ideologues. That’s why they’re so frightened of me, across the water.”

In an age of global capitalism and neo-liberal politics, it’s an interesting thesis, but here it has to compete with arguments on feminism, racism as well as the legacy of the holocaust—early in the show, there is a restaging of Gita Sereny’s remarkable interview of Franz Stangl (commandant of the Treblinka death camp). The archive documentary footage we are shown is well-chosen (featuring, among others, Germaine Greer, Francis Ford Coppolla and Nobel Prize winner Chinua Achebe), but there is a sense of the production becoming too much ‘about what it is about’, to the detriment of dramatic impact. The whole has an agitprop feel, with many of the attendant plusses and minuses of the genre.

The cast of five are well employed. Morgan Bailey relishes the various Americans he gets to play, and Laura Atherton and Morven Macbeth put in sterling performaces in narrative and supporting roles. Matt Prendergast (from director to driver to Kurstz) has a nice range of accents and attitudes on display.

At the heart of the show is Keicha Greenidge’s Marlow. She holds the stage well and brings an emotion to the role which seems barely evidenced in the script. This seems an opportunity missed. The resolute humanity of a 21st century black woman as Marlow was surely worth exploring in more detail. To paraphrase Raymond Chandler, “along these mean streets walks a woman who is not herself mean.”

There is also a certain coyness about whether Kurtz himself should be black or white, the former possibility being immediately and rather glibly dismissed. Of course, one can see the potential drawbacks of a black villain in this context, but given that, by time World War Two happens, many of the atrocities of empire had already been visited upon Africa by European powers, the notion of a black African male returning a heart of darkness to the seat of colonial power also has its dramatic possibilities.

Simon Wainwright’s projection and video design are key to the success of Heart of Darkness (and, for the most part, it does succeed).

This is not a great adaptation, but it is a good and (largely) brave one, well worth seeing.

Martin Thomasson