Wednesday 10th April 2019 at York Theatre Royal.
In this new hyper-contemporary production, Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novel Heart of Darkness is ‘retold for today’ by imitating the dog. A text very much of its time, this production takes the bull by the horns and in a supremely meta set-up, offers the text in a new light: film production live on stage.
We meet a cast of creatives collaborating on a film production of the text and are made privy to the debates surrounding adapting this particularly problematic text for 2019 audiences. We also see the film taking shape in what is ultimately a highly stylised and sophisticated piece of theatre.
Three segmented screens hang over the stage space and onto this live action is projected; we’re watching the shooting of a movie in two formats at once. As the ensemble seamlessly follow the actors with cameras, green screen and various other impressive technologies are used to thrust our actors into the Congo, through every weather and seemingly onto every highway and back road in Europe.
Special effects used in such sequences vary from intense noir thriller vibes to cartoonish comic book strip with images deliberately pixelated and sketched rather than realistic. All manner of angles manipulate the telling of the tale and it’s fascinating to see the camerawork take shape, marrying the action below the screens with the illusions being simultaneously created above.
The technical demands of this production are consequently rather mighty. Co-writers and directors Andrew Quick and Pete Brooks have stepped outside of the box and waved goodbye to it. Projection, video and production designs are the USP, heart and soul of this piece and Simon Wainwright’s work gives the whole production a keen air of sophisticated artistry, supported by excellent Music (Jeremy Peyton-Jones) and Lighting (Andrew Crofts) design.
Matt Prendergast takes the role of lead adaptor/ director working with a creative team looking to produce this modern adaptation of Conrad’s novel. He approaches the text academically, valuing its place within the literary conon and insisting that while Conrad’s novel is undoubtedly racist and therefore somewhat unsalvageable as is, Conrad was a radical progressive. As such, his depictions of Africa and Africans in the hell haze of colonialism can in fact be interpreted as a self-conscious critique of European interests in colonisation.
Prendergast makes easy work of portraying both a credibly intense creative passionate about his work and a dark, deeply corrupt villain, switching between brooding mastermind of the arts to cruel destroyer of all he purveys with impressive dexterity.
Speaking of which, Keicha Greenidge captivates with great dexterity throughout. Greenidge first appears as the lead, Marlow, the noir detective of the film. Over time it transpires that her character fought for the role of Marlow, taking Conrad’s flaws in hand and doing her best to combat the challenges of the work by making Marlow an intelligent and deeply driven black female in a position of power and influence, worlds away from the black women depicted in the pages of Conrad’s novel.
Like Prendergast, Greenidge is adept at switching between the principled young actor fighting the good fight and demanding change for a 2019 production and the brooding character facing great peril.
With a cast of five, this production is performed as a highly skilled and drilled ensemble piece. Laura Atherton, Morgan Bailey and Morven Macbeth (a great quietly imperious villain) join Prendergast and Greenidge, taking various minor roles and narrating while simultaneously providing filming and stage hand functions. It’s a deeply impressive system to watch the five of them manipulate the blank space to conjure scenes so far away from the interior of a theatre in 2019 and in this sense, the production is splendidly ambitious.
Ultimately, Heart of Darkness is no walk in the park. There are no characters who invite whole-hearted connection or investment. It’s dark and dreary with glimpses of thrilling danger and some shock tactic moments. It’s the dynamic of seeing actors as creatives during the collaborative process which creates the strongest layer of interest, along with the ambitious set-up of live filming. Imitating the dog’s approach to Conrad’s work shows not just a keen interest in modernising the telling of the story, but interrogating the piece in its original form and being willing to talk about the elephant in the room when considering a text like this for the basis of a contemporary performance. A very ambitious and interesting work.
imitating the dog’s Heart of Darkness is a co-production with Marche Teatro, Italy, Cast, Doncaster, Lancaster Arts at Lancaster University and Theatre by the Lake. It tours until May 11th 2019 and you can find information on venues and tickets here.