By Ken Powell
I’ll be blunt: ‘Heart of Darkness’ is one of the most excitingly innovative and challenging productions I’ve ever had the good fortune to watch. I can’t recommend it enough.
The production is touring but currently on at Keswick’s Theatre by the Lake. Performed by the curiously-named ‘imitating the dog’ company, is a rethinking of Joseph Conrad’s ‘classic’ novella of the same name. If you have ever read the book or remember seeing ‘Apocalypse Now’ (Francis Ford Coppola’s own 1979 re-imagining, taking the characters out of colonial Africa and into the Vietnam war) then it is a must-see. But even if you haven’t encountered either, go see this production, if just for the experience of something truly different (and, as it happens, the cast explain both book and film as the story progresses). I literally didn’t know if I was watching a play, a film, a series of interviews or discussion group; it was a superb blend of artforms and utterly gripping.
I have a hate-hate relationship with Conrad. I don’t rate him as a writer; ‘Lord Jim’ was boring from beginning to end and ‘Heart of Darkness’, reputedly his greatest work, is horrifically colonial, painting Africans as savages and white Westerners as heroes. Yet, his journeying into the ‘heart’ of Africa is a journey into the darkness of the soul (albeit through the ‘crime of going native’) and this has given his book an enduring quality which I find deeply uncomfortable. I was delighted to find the characters (and very probably the production team) shared my discomfort. It becomes a major theme itself and turns everything on its head. I nodded in agreement almost all the way.
The first and most obvious example of this is the reversal of stereotypes: The white male lead becomes a black woman; the depths of savage Africa become a war-ravaged Europe with London the ultimate, and terrifying, destination. But the whole structure of the play also challenges our (pre)conceptions of stage performances. With three large screens hanging above the stage and two film cameras moved and operated by the actors in full view streaming live onto the screens complete with backdrops, you are forced to look everywhere simultaneously. We move in and out of story-telling, commentary and interview (at times perfectly lip-synched).
The actors are young, fresh and brilliant. Keicha Greenidge plays ‘Charlie’ Marlow and is central to the whole tenet of rearranging the externals of the story to get at the kernel of the meaning. Without her convincing and mesmerising performance, the attempt would fall flat. Matt Prendergast takes a variety of roles including that of the elusive ‘Kurtz’ and deceives us into thinking he really is completely different people. He’s an excellent baddie, for sure. The rest of the cast are almost as strong but their interactions on the stage are incredible. I can’t explain it; you have to see it. Catch it while the production still tours.
Social Entrepreneur, educationalist, bestselling author and journalist, D K Powell is the author of the bestselling collection of literary short stories “The Old Man on the Beach“. His first book, ‘Sonali’ is a photo-memoir journal of life in Bangladesh and has been highly praised by the Bangladeshi diaspora worldwide. Students learning the Bengali language have also valued the English/Bengali translations on every page. Listen to his life story in interview with the BBC here.
Ken writes for a number of publications around the world. Past reviewer for Paste magazine, The Doughnut, E2D and United Airways, and currently reviews for Lancashire Life magazine and Northern Arts Review. His reviews have been read more than 4.5 million times.
D K Powell is available to speak at events (see his TEDx talk here) and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Alternatively, he is available for one-to-one mentoring and runs a course on the psychology of writing.