Review: Heart Of Darkness at the Playhouse

Date: 03/05/2019

How do you recreate Heart Of Darkness convincingly on a stage? It’s a fair question – and one asked by the cast of this new production as they fathom the practical and political considerations of staging Conrad’s troubling ‘is-it-racist?’ 19th Century novel about a man’s descent into Africa – and more.

Instead of coming down on one side, Imitating The Dog’s play provides the audience with the differing perspectives of the diverse cast, who perform the opinions of their respective characters – and adopt the roles of those who have critiqued the book. It’s just one example of the self-reflexivity that makes this production so much more than Just Another Heart Of Darkness.

Filmed against a greenscreen, the cast reimagine the a febrile mix of Conrad’s novel, Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, a dash of film noir and a kaleidoscope of film references.

This take on rear projection means we can see the cast on stage and simultaneously see them in situ on one of three screens above the stage, as if ripped from the Playhouse stage and pulled into a world that smacks of Blade Runner, Sin City and the cinematic universe of David Lynch.

The invention doesn’t end there. The cast reject a traditional retelling of the novel and invert it. Conrad’s protagonist, Marlow, is no longer a white man travelling to the notionally savage Congo, but a black woman travelling from Kinshasa to a post-WWII-ravaged alternative Europe of internment camps, zombie capitalism (the cast ponder whether to make the antagonists Romeroian capitalist zombies) and, as Kurtz would have it, the horror.

Quite what that horror amounts to is interrogated by the cast in a fascinating exploration of Conrad’s intentions, which moves the production beyond trite binary interpretations into something much more profound. An argument between structuralists and poststructuralists that results in a deconstructionist retelling of a Victorian novella is quite a thing to slip into some early-evening entertainment, while the audience scoff their Revels.

Arguably there is too much exposition at times and not enough at others. By the time the cast explains why Marlow is travelling through a post-apocalyptic Europe, the audience has probably pieced it together, if they were paying attention through a sometimes-bemusing first act.

Despite the intriguing melding of facts and fictions, verbal stage directions and a cast that double up as production team, it’s uncertain whether Heart Of Darkness quite gets away with some lengthy tracts of analysis and explanation.

Some performances are more even than others – though Morgan Bailey particularly juggles a number of roles and accents without apparent effort – and the cast are occasionally hard to hear. By the time Marlow and Kurtz face off in the belly of a dystopian London it can’t help feel a little anticlimactic, given the swirling, unnerving and sometimes overwhelming sensory inputs that preceded it. And despite his best efforts, Matt Prendergast as Kurtz has an impossible task of contending with the not-inconsiderable shadow cast by Marlon Brando.

Spliced-in interjections from Apocalypse Now, newsreel and scrolling text from critiques of the novel and contextual annotations form a giddy melange of multimedia; a dizzying backdrop to the production on stage. Whatever else it is, Heart Of Darkness is still an inspiration for remarkable adaptations and interpretations.

The overall effect is impressive, ingenious: a dual-plus-screening exploration of text, form and meaning – and the most entertaining study notes you will ever experience.

Heart Of Darkness
Liverpool Playhouse
Until Saturday 4 may