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The Ridiculous Darkness

Wolfram Lotz
Gate Theatre
to

This surreal satire by German dramatist Lotz, originally written for radio, is a response to Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness and the Francis Ford Coppola’s film Apocalypse Now, which was inspired by it. The original book has been criticised (by Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe especially) as being racist in its presentation of Africans, though when it was written it was seen as a critique of the colonisers.

Lotz seeks to take that critique further with a satirical exaggeration of white supremacist attitudes. While Coppola transposed the story from the Belgian Congo to Vietnam, Lotz relocates to Somalia and Afghanistan, presented first as Somali fisherman-turned-pirate Ultimo presents his own case to a court trying him in Hamburg and then joins German army sergeant Pellner and his private soldier sidekick Stefan Dorsch following the Hindu Kush (which for them is a river, not a mountain range) into Afghanistan in search of a rogue white officer who takes the place of Conrad’s Kurtz.

Since its Vienna première, there have been some large-scale productions of this script (in Vancouver and by the Greek National Theatre for instance) but this is a minimalist adaptation of Daniel Brunet’s translation by director Anthony Simpson-Pike with a cast of just four and adds extra irony by them all being black females.

Simpson-Pike and his designer Rosie Elnile offer a reminder of the play’s radio origins with a glassed-in sound studio where foley effects are created that is set on one side of the faux-panelled theatre. Rochelle Rose emerges from it to play pirate Ultimo and gains immediate acceptance of her in the male role that sets the pattern for the whole show, which has a simple directness that makes its images even more forceful.

Ultimo’s long monologue, partly played to a microphone while the back of a lawyer’s head appears on screen behind him, is delivered with an honest and convincing openness. He tells how he and school friend Tofdau (Shannon Hayes) found the resources to buy a boat, how they knotted nets and become fishermen but only to find their nets came up empty. The sea had been fished out by international fishing fleets. They looked down through a sea from which even the water had been taken, leaving only the rage in its depths.

Ultimo then went to university and learned all the skills of a pirate but his little boat was run down and smashed by a big German ship, which he managed to board—which was when they arrested him. Poignant and poetic, it concludes with a bitter fable before Wagner’s "Valkyrie" theme introduces Travis Alabanza as condescending, camply self-important white Sgt Pellner and Seraphina Bey in a comic moustache as Dorsch.

As they make their way up river (their progress pictorially mapped on screen) in their search for Lieutenant Colonel Deutinger, the absurdity of their view of the inhabitants at first may seem silly rather than witty. It takes a moment to register the satirical strength of ridiculous reactions, such as Pellner’s shock at discovering the natives as carnivores.

Deutinger, when they find him recounting a strange dream of taking trip up his own anus, is a played by Rochelle Rose as a richly voiced heavyweight (she is briefly a talking parrot too), but Shannon Hayes plays the other people they encounter from Italian UN soldiers to missionary Carter.

Its whimsicality and seemingly chaotic structure may mistakenly make The Ridiculous Darkness seem lightweight, but its caricature of white colonialist attitudes is savage and the setting and direction give some order, slyly sending up its radio origins as well as scoring political points which are emphasised by the casting, which assembles a cast who handle it with skill and vivacity. Who said Germans had no sense of humour? Send them to see this.

Howard Loxton