Writer: Joseph Conrad
Adaptor: Andrew Quick and Pete Brooks
Director: Pete Brooks
Reviewer: Jim Gillespie
This is not Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, although it would be improper not to give him a writer’s credit. It is also inaccurate to describe it as an adaptation, although much is made of the difficulties of adapting a Victorian novel about events in Africa for a multi-cultural society in 2019. Instead, the basic narrative thread of the original novel is used as a framework on which to hang a wide range of ideas and interpretations, themes and arguments. These include race, gender, capitalism, colonialism, exploitation, brutality, inhumanity, economics, creativity and – yes, zombies – although the list does not do justice to the complexity of the material on offer!
In Conrad’s novel, the protagonist Marlow travels up the River Congo, at the height of Belgian colonial exploitation of the country, to find the ivory trader, Kurtz, who is surrounded by rumours which seem to both deify and demonise him. Marlow struggles to make progress against both man-made and natural obstacles, but finally encounters a dying Kurtz at the centre of a brutal regime. Kurtz dies before he can return to civilisation, and Marlow himself almost suffers a similar fate, but makes his return to London, to tell his story to others.
Imitating the dog, the creative force staging this re-telling of Conrad’s novel, turn many aspects of the original on its head. The journey is from Africa to London, by a female private detective hired by the Congolese government to bring Kurtz back with her, from a war-ravaged Europe, where society and its infrastructure have broken down. Only the legacy of Second World War concentration camps provide a basis for work, for trade, for survival, for power, as threadbare capitalist warlords scavenge the wreckage of an ungovernable continent. Marlow – thrillingly brought to life by Keicha Greenidge – undertakes this dangerous quest stalked by a range of furtive characters, whose allegiance cannot be taken at face value, and accompanied by the saturnine driver Berensdorf.
This outlines the basics of the tale. But the manner of telling it adds additional depths to the story, and some intriguing cross-references, allusions, and parallels. Some of these may seem obvious, such as Francis Coppola’s 1969 film Apolocalypse Now, based on the same source material. Less obvious, are re-created interviews with Franz Stangl, the camp commandant at Treblinka, and the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe, who attacked the Conrad novel’s racism. These and other films are displayed on three large screens which hang above the stage, serving as a kind of Greek chorus to comment and reflect on the main action.
The video triptych adds a multi-faceted dimension to how all aspects of the story, and its wider connotations are portrayed. These include newsreel footage of Holocaust survivors, news reports from right-wing marches, jingoistic patriotic rallies, mutilated child soldiers, jazz musicians, political demagogues, refugee columns, and much more. The actors on the stage are also constantly being filmed, and their actions re-played on the video screens above their heads, sometimes with the benefit of additional backdrops or projections. This makes for complex viewing, like watching a split screen movie, but it also adds additional depth and engagement, affording as it does an intense close-up on the actors at the most dramatic moments.
The company go on to add another dimension, to this already multi-faceted drama, by sharing some of the discussions which they, as actors, might have had in workshopping the Conrad story. We become privy to their debates on interpreting it in the light of current thinking on matters of race and gender. Ironically, this comes across as the least naturalistic element of the drama, and is unnecessarily preachy and heavy-handed. The arguments which preoccupy the actors in these scenes are valid and worthwhile, but probably belong in the programme notes rather than on the stage.
Almost every actor is called on to play several parts, even Keicha Greenidge who carries the weight of the protagonist role. Matt Prendergast hardly says a word as the brooding Bernsdorf, and yet remains a powerful presence in every scene. Morgan Bailey features strongly as the unreliable middle-man Davis, but is also a versatile ensemble player. Laura Atherton and Morven Macbeth have less stage time but fully contribute to the momentum.
This is a drama owing its genesis to a book. Of words. On a page. What imitating the dog and their collaborators have done, is to re-invest it with all the technical wizardry afforded to theatre in 2019, from green-screen to video streaming, to re-tell the story with a stronger visual content: Much as a classic text turned into a graphic novel will bring out nuances and textures beyond the reach of the original text itself. And while the visual elements may dominate, the music by Jeremy Peyton-James is a brilliant accompaniment, adding atmosphere and ratcheting up the tension at key moments.
This production has taken Conrad’s slender book, added the kitchen sink of 21st Century sensibility, a twisted history lesson, and the most innovative staging imaginable, but kept faith with the emotional core of the story to bring something very innovative into being.
Runs until 18th April 2019 | Image: Ed Waring