Preview: Heart of Darkness

Joseph Conrad’s classic novel Heart of Darkness has been given a modern interpretation for stage

Hero image

“Maybe we have exhausted our white, male hero. Maybe there’s not a lot left to say about that, and maybe it’s much more interesting to rethink them, reimagine them, and then see what the consequence is,” says director Andrew Quick, whose production of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness takes a look at the classic text from a new perspective.

Quick, a Lancaster University professor and co-founder of theatre company Imitating the Dog, has replaced Conrad’s white male narrator Charles Marlow with a black female version, who, rather than leading audiences from London to the River Congo, sails from Africa into a war-torn Europe, which is presented as a forsaken landscape lost to the destructive lust for power.

Conrad’s novel has been lauded as one of the greatest of the 20th century – it was published in 1899 – but although it presents Marlow as a staunch critic of imperialism in Africa, the awkward truth is it gives no voice to the indigenous people he encounters.

“The novel is still challenging lots of assumptions about imperialism that seem very resonant today, so it’s by no means a novel that we should ignore, but we also have to take some of the problems on board,” says Quick.

“Once you think we don’t want this to be a classic white man’s view of an experience of another culture, once you say wait, there’s something there we find a bit difficult, then you are presented with choices, so we thought let’s change the geographical, geopolitical location, let’s imagine it from a version of Africa looking at a version of Europe.”

In Quick’s Heart of Darkness there hasn’t been colonialism – something he says was difficult to imagine “because Africa is so scarred by it”.

“Then you think, does the protagonist have to be male? What happens if we make this protagonist female? What kind of new perspective or new psychology to the masculine heroic genre that we’re so used to does it change? Does it challenge it? And of course it does, but it also creates lots of other problems in terms of how you present it as an experience going through the landscape of a broken Europe.”

All of the challenges faced by Quick during the adaptation process will be laid bare for audiences to see, as the cast presents the tale from the viewpoint of a group of people attempting to make a film of Conrad’s novel.

The production fuses live performance with cinema, which Quick says has a well-established relationship with the novel.

“Of course Apocalypse Now, which we reference a great deal in our piece, but also lots of other films make reference to Heart of Darkness, so I think our piece visually is a mix of the cinematic and the graphic novel as a mode of storytelling.

“We were interested in thinking about this as a bit like reading, so when you read a novel you read through the words but you imagine and translate those words into images in your head. You imagine what the landscape looks like, and Conrad has these extraordinary beautiful descriptions of the landscape that Marlow is moving through, so we work between description and visualisation of those descriptions, which the camera technology allows you to do.”

Heart of Darkness is at Cast Doncaster, 5-6 March, the Dukes, Lancaster, 19-23 March, Theatre By The Lake, Keswick, 26-31 March, York Theatre Royal, 9-10 April, the Lowry, 16-18 April, and Liverpool Playhouse, 1-4 May

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