Heart of Darkness – The STUDIO, Birmingham REP

Writers: Pete Brooks and Andrew Quick, from the book by Joseph Conrad

Directors: Pete Brooks and Andrew Quick

Reviewer: Selwyn Knight

Written in 1899, Joseph Conrad’s novella, Heart of Darkness, is often regarded as one of the great stories of the twentieth century. It is an attack on colonialism and empire, in which we follow our protagonist, Company man Charles Marlow, into darkest Africa. Marlow becomes fascinated with one of the most successful, in economic terms, station leaders, one Kurtz, who is variously described as a great man or a poet but seems to represent colonialism at its worst. However, the story has its detractors: for example, Chinua Achebe, who gave a public lecture in 1975 in which he denounced the novella as being ‘offensive and deplorable’ and as being xenophobic. One could argue that the novella is of its time rather than intentionally racist; in any case, the subject matter has uncomfortable overtones to the modern reader.

So having decided to present a version of Heart of Darkness for the modern playgoer, theatre group imitating the dog and writers and directors Andrew Quick and Pete Brooks had a mammoth task. The result is a striking and multi-layered piece that challenges the audience’s thinking by turning the events of Conrad’s novella on their heads.

It is difficult to do justice to the scope of the final production. One theme is the making of a ‘film’ of the adaptation – the stage has a couple of video cameras, tables and chairs as well as a screen used for projections and green screen imagery. We simultaneously see the action live as well as on screens above our heads, where video techniques transport the characters to the various locations. Cast members operate the cameras and also provide any location information and voiceovers. Another theme has the cast in flashback as devisers, discussing the book and brainstorming ideas about the adaptation. They discuss previous adaptations and try to distil the essence of the book. These discussions, interspersed with the actual story-telling, give us a glimpse into the adaptors’ minds, as well as giving some background that we might not readily pick up.

In this adaptation, then, we are in an alternate reality in which there has been a catastrophic war and the west is on its knees. Europe is in the grip of anarchy with an economy based on autonomous camps, the natural successors to the concentration camps of the second world war, and the superpowers are no more. Africa is now the heart of civilisation. Congolese private eye, Charlotte Marlow is tasked by a mysterious group to travel to darkest Europe to find Kurtz, the leader of one of the camps. The river trip of Conrad’s novella becomes, initially, a road trip across Europe and then a trip up the Thames. It’s a dark scary saga with Marlow narrowly escaping death several times. Ultimately, she meets Kurtz and is held for a time as he tries to justify his actions before his death and she is able to return to civilisation.

The use of the flashbacks to the devising process is a useful device to ensure the audience is aware as to who the bad guys are and why the west has fallen, as well as why some of the artistic decisions have been made. The actual storytelling is dark and effective, creating a chilling atmosphere as characters appear with ambiguous agendas. The use of the film as vehicle (and our knowledge of the process from the devising segments) enables the function of a narrator to be neatly included without becoming some sort of omniscient voice devoid of personality.

The ensemble cast of five works well to fit the various themes together effectively. Central is Keicha Greenidge’s Marlow. Her stage presence is commanding, while close-ups of her face clearly show the conflicting emotions of Marlow throughout the story. A fairly constant companion is Matt Prendergast, who is Berensdorf, her driver and guide, and later Kurtz himself. Something of a cipher, Prendergast uses that to make his characters even more ambiguous and chilling. When they are together, one is never truly sure of his characters’ true motivations. Supporting in various rôles are Morgan Bailey, Laura Atherton and Morven Macbeth, all bringing the same air of ambiguity and barely-hidden threat.

The production is mostly slick, although there seemed to be occasional technical glitches at the press night performance that affected the screens – this is, after all, a highly technical show to put on, mixing all the elements as well as an understated but effective soundscape – and the scene in which Kurtz treats Marlow and us to a discussion of his drivers perhaps outstays its welcome just a touch.

It is by no means a comfortable watch: the audience is forced to confront uncomfortable truths as well as watching the film noir interpretation – a thought-provoking retelling of the tale for today.

Runs Until 24 November 2018  | Image: Lara Virgulti

Review Overview

The Reviews Hub Score

Dark and compelling

The Reviews Hub - Central

The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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