Heart of Darkness
- Gareth K Vile
- 11 March 2019
Delving into Conrad's shadow
Even if Imitating the Dog's adaptation of Conrad's seminal colonial novel has been damned with the faint praise of privileging ambition over ambition, its lively critiques of both theatre and the lazy assumptions about how a 'classic text' needs no justification set it apart from the majority of theatrical experiences. Juddering between the plot – an African investigator searches for the horror in a Europe devastated by a tribal capitalism that has learnt the lessons of concentration camps and barbaric oppression – and the company's attempts to make sense of the novel's values, vices and virtues, Heart of Darkness plunges into the nightmare of a culture that has been corrupted by success.
It draws on multimedia trickery to escape the lineal retelling of the plot: three screens are suspended above the stage, extracts from Conrad's Heart of Darkness stutter through a radio, and the colonialism has been inverted so that London becomes the locus of ultimate horror, and Africa is no longer the victim of the nineteenth century's expansive imperialism. The cast, playing themselves, gather around tables to critique the book's status as a twentieth century classic, the problems of capitalism, their own dramaturgical choices (and the shadow of Apocalypse Now, which is, they insist, the 'only cinematic adaptation that matters').
Imitating the Dog filter Heart of Darkness through a twenty-first century sensitivity and paranoia. Simply telling the story isn't enough: they distend the plot, cut and paste the wretched isolationist politics of Empire, Francis Ford Coppola's hallucinatory cinema, the company's discussions as they try to work out how to deal with a novel that both critiques colonialism and celebrates the white male voice. The journey up river of the book and film ends in the exploration of the violence encoded in nineteenth century colonialism, becoming a road trip and a ferry across the channel towards a Britain that rots in the aftermath of a conflict that echoes WWII.
In this alternative universe, however, the USA and USSR have disappeared, Europe is a series of competing fiefdoms and Africa is the last continent standing. Instead of using the novel's perspective – there's too much white male, too many passive 'natives' receiving the lash and standing in for a bestial primeval humanity – ITD find their own vision. Gender and race reversals, long arguments about the power of fiction to shape reality – and vicious studies of how oppression operates – contribute towards a production that finds a way to adapt without reverence. Drawing on the alternative strategies of European theatre, rejecting the sanctity of the text and occasionally slipping into an excessive stentorian delivery, Heart of Darkness becomes a sharp corrective to political and theatrical business as usual.
Reviewed at Tron Theatre, Glasgow. Now touring.