Writers/Directors: Andrew Quick and Pete Brooks
Music: Jeremy Peyton Jones
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
There are many problems when adapting a novel as a stage play, from length to numbers of characters, from reproducing or rejecting the original setting to finding a modern dramatic equivalent, to the author’s narrative style. So distant have some recent versions been that they are best described as analogous to the original.
The experimental theatre company, imitating the dog, does it differently, of course. The company’s version of Heart of Darkness is at an oblique angle to Joseph Conrad’s original. Instead of a journey to the heart of Africa by a white European male, we have a journey to war-ravaged Europe by a black African female and, as the directors admit, “the events…in our version are different to Conrad’s.” So what’s left? A surprising amount, but not presented in an orthodox way: Joseph Conrad’s novel is not adapted so much as interrogated.
Heart of Darkness was published in 1899, nearly a decade after Conrad, a seaman before he was a writer, had commanded the steamer, Le Roi des Belges, on a journey into the interior of the Belgian Congo. Marlow does the same thing in the novel, a journey into “the heart of darkness”, and tells the story of the larger than life agent Kurtz who represents the evils of colonial commercial expansion. Conrad was ahead of his time in finding “the heart of darkness” in Europe as well as Africa, but as a late Victorian expressed it all from the white man’s perspective. Andrew Quick, Pete Brooks and Simon Wainwright seek to readjust that perspective now that “there has re-emerged a nostalgia for a time of Empire” – true enough, but a trifle disingenuous when King Leopold II of the Belgians is routinely vilified for his appalling crimes in the Congo.
The adapted story tells of a detective in prosperous Kinshasa who retains the name of Conrad’s seafarer, Marlow, setting off to bring back the rogue agent, Kurtz, from the badlands of England via a hazardous journey across Northern and Western Europe. This story has to compete with at least three other narratives conjured up by imitating the dog’s fecund imagination. One is the creation of the text/production via rehearsals and cast/director discussions. Another is making it as a film, not an orthodox stage production. The production opens with movie-style credits, films (notably Apocalypse Now) are referenced throughout and the “final” version appears on screens above and behind while cast members act it out in a skeleton setting which is amplified by on-screen projections. Finally, the whole thing is a sort of educational seminar on the cruelty engendered by colonialism and capitalism. We start with a replay of a 1970s television interview with the former commandant of Treblinka concentration camp, we hear an analysis of the politics of Heart of Darkness and the testimony of the Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba.
The production has many strengths. The changes from one mode to another are dramatically enforced by sound and lights. The use of off-screen narrative builds great pace and momentum at times. The visual impact of the production is always striking and Jeremy Peyton-Jones’ soundtrack music underpins the action most effectively.
As an adaptation method, however, it is not an unmixed blessing. The rehearsal scenes try too hard to be educational and become, in truth, rather dull until the exciting climax when group members throw in different plot developments. With little dialogue outside these scenes, there is little character involvement, even with Marlow, despite the strength and intelligence of Keicha Greenidge’s performance.
Laura Atherton and Morven Macbeth carry the weight of filming and narrating and play a variety of small parts; Morgan Bailey and Matt Prendergast have rather more developed roles, Prendergast, in particular, doing well as a huge variety of characters, from Marlow’s monosyllabic driver to the self-aggrandising Kurtz. It’s revealing, however, that the programme puts “Ensemble” at the head of the list of parts for each actor: even Greenidge is part of an ensemble finely tuned to serve a concept before she is the dramatic lead in an adventure story-cum-moral treatise.
Touring nationwide | Image contributed