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York
Heart Of Darkness In York
Andrew Liddle, Features Writer
Keicha Greenidge as Charlie Marlow. Photo by Ed Waring
When we watch something by imitating the dog, the innovatively experimental stage company which writes its name in lower case, we may be getting a foretaste of what theatre will be like in the future. They will probably be using a high-tech multi-media format with ensemble acting and with – if the play belongs to an earlier age – a radical realignment of its values, outing if not rooting out entirely any perceived old-world prejudices.

Certainly their adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness, featuring live-streaming of the actors onto split screens which supply the background scenery, and the use of filmic quotations (from notably Apocalypse Now) suggest the way theatre might well have to go to connect with the modern audience brought up on power-point presentations, video games, graphic novels, virtual reality. We even get captions so we don’t miss anything.

Future audiences looking at classics from the past may well need a little help with the plot and above all with its issues, be given little helpful hints about possible interpretations so that they simultaneously understand the past and, where necessary, voice their discomfort at its gross out-dated take on race for example. In this production after every burst of on-going activity, the entire ensemble tends to step outside the narrative to discuss, on an adult level - at times quite an intellectual level – what’s going on and, specifically, why we might wish to see Conrad as a racist rather than merely a man of his time.

The Cast of Heart of Darkness. Photo by Ed Waring
Now this takes us by surprise since the work by one of England’s finest writers - a Pole writing in his third language - is usually seen as a devastating critique of racism. Africa, the so-called Dark Continent, the heart of which Conrad’s narrator, Marlow, attempts to penetrate, is seen as corrupted by European imperialism. That much Marlow knows although for most of the time his is confused and reduced to using words like ‘unfathomable’, ‘illimitable’, ‘impenetrable’ and ‘enigma’.

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This play has no such doubts and is not so much an adaptation of the original book as an alternative take – and a very ingenious one. We see the play developing and being flipped on its head in rehearsal, in its relocation from 1890's Africa to post-war Europe, with Marlow as an African private detective and Kurtz as the notorious Treblinka camp commandant Franz Stangl. Europe with its right-wing history of slavery and exploitation - not least Belgium with its atrocities in the Congo - is the proper place to look if you want to find the real heart of darkness. And it is the River Thames that Marlow is sailing upstream to his fateful encounter with the genocidal Kurtz.

And this is no mad aberration or absurdly wilful distortion. Many years ago, the acclaimed novelist Chinua Achebe shocked the world by calling Conrad a racist and his novella a scandal. It is believed that Francis Ford Coppola took his cue from this in Apocalypse Now, to attack American presence in Viet Nam in a far more aggressive way than he noted Conrad had been capable of when anatomising European occupation of Africa.

Co-writers and co-directors, Andrew Quick and Pete Brooks, are on to something really clever and compelling here – even where it seems to get confusing and allegories and analogies in danger of breaking down. Of course it takes a superb ensemble to pull it all together with towering performances, not least, from Keicha Greenidge as Marlow and Matt Prendergast as Kurtz.

If you want to know what theatre will be like in the future go and see imitating the dog at York Theatre Royal.

Heart Of Darkness In York, 10th April 2019, 19:41 PM