Pushing meta-theatre to its limit, ‘Imitating the dog’s’ bold, energetic and innovative reinterpretation of The Heart of Darkness (1899), currently on tour, poses the question — can we retell Conrad’s disturbing critique of exploitation in colonial times without falling prey to racism which even the author couldn’t avoid?
Telling, retelling and reinventing Conrad’s exploration of ‘the horror’ of Belgian Congo, a slave state with genocidal policies of murder and mutilation in pursuit of profit, is an enterprise requiring tact and imagination, of which there was no shortage in the production. While the novella was praised for its presentation of the evils of colonialism, it has been criticised for a Eurocentric view of Africa as a place of savagery, a point made forcefully by projecting Chinua Achebe’s withering assessment on one of the screens in this multi-media show. The play stresses that global capitalism and colonialism were the darkness, not the indigenous population: the ‘heart of darkness’ was not what Marlow found in Africa, but what he left behind in Europe, only seen in all its monstrosity in a different place. This story has modern relevance as well as historic significance; it isn’t too ‘problematic’ for today’s audience.
Geopolitically reversed, this production is set in an Africa that is stable and civilised, not the colonially ravaged Congo. Their journey to ‘The Heart of Darkness’ is to a Europe that never escaped the worst aspects of the Second World War. Indeed, its whole civilisation has degenerated into a system of concentration camps. London, the final destination, is the heart of darkness, destroyed and lawless but with eerie echoes of Conrad’s foggy sequences on the Thames. The result is not far-fetched but plays tellingly on our fears for a Europe racked by populism. It is the ultimate story of a journey into the unknown and self-discovery on the winding roads of Europe, rather than a journey up the River Congo.
This is a play of ideas and multiple narratives. Framing the central action is a metanarrative of the cast workshopping the play collaboratively, allowing intensive discussion of many issues of race and identity that inform the production.
The ‘guts’ of the play, has Marlow, updated as a black Congolese woman and classily played by Keicha Greenidge, employed as a private detective — this resolved the cliché of the ‘white saviour’ rescuing the crazed Kurtz from the brutality which had warped his mind. Kurtz, convincingly performed by Matt Prendergast, was still a white man who had worked his way up from within the trading system, showing this was no simple racial allegory.
With a strikingly bare and minimalist set, we were confronted by the story, ideas and messages with no distracting decorative touches. Three large screens hung ominously above the stage broadcasting the action of the play with subtitles. Two large cameras projected live videos of the action as five actors took on multiple roles, seamlessly switching between characters. Digital technology was creatively used throughout, assisting its multi-layered, innovative approach. It was as much cinematic as theatrical. As the story became messier and more violent, so did the relationship between what was on screen and what was presented on stage deteriorate.
The Brechtian use of stage and offstage spaces had characters filming each other at opposite sides of the stage but appearing side by side on the projector screens. Stage directions dictated by the ensemble didn’t result in actions on screen — more was implied off-screen than shown on-screen. Languages proliferate: Yiddish, French, German and Swedish are spoken but not translated. Breaking and blurring the boundaries of form, style and genre, this play blends live action and film to visceral effect.
This production questions not only how to stage such a story but also explores its contemporary significance. Their answer was the rise of the far right. ‘Imperialism is capitalism in its raw form’, proclaim the characters in a ‘play within the play’. The glorification of the Empire by Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage was referred to with footage of their speeches and of Boris idiotically suspended on a zip wire clutching Union Jack flags. ‘Rule Britannia’ plays in the background. If ever there was a time that we needed reminding that the past isn’t to be viewed with rose tinted spectacles, it is now.
In an ambitious, imperfect, exciting and hard-hitting performance, ‘Imitating the dog’ succeeded in capturing the spirit, rather than the voice of Conrad. Ever unsettling, it reminds us the horrors of the past, challenges us to look at our present, and to reach for a brighter future than ‘the horror’ depicted on stage.