Heart of Darkness

Heart of Darkness

Adapted and directed by Andrew Quick and Pete Brooks
Liverpool Playhouse
1st – 4th May 2019

Reviewed by Ashley McGovern

After its first publication in book form in 1902, Joseph Conrad knew Heart of Darkness would be seen as more that a simple “anecdote of a man who goes mad in the Centre of Africa”.

Its been endlessly picked apart by critics and it gets another examination in imitating the dog’s version at the Playhouse. Clearly burdened by the weight of critical addenda, this production is confused and deeply undramatic.

Setting out to give a thoroughly Conradical post-mortem of the book – to deconstruct, invert, flip, etc. all of the original assumptions – the piece gets lost in its tedious structure and constant hat tips to other adaptations that have appeared over the last century.

A group is struggling to adapt the original, all firmly agreed that straight up textual translation is an irrelevancy in our time. Conrad either offers a colonial critique too subtle to be credited, or is an unmasked racist with nothing but contempt for a culture he doesn’t grasp. So the infamous dichotomy of the source, orderly Europe and hellish Central Africa, gets a rerun.

Now Marlowe, female, black and played with sometimes very effective feverishness by Keicha Greenidge, heads into an upturned Europe – not the elective superstate we know, but a chain of labour camps.

That’s the central thread but everything else distracts from what could have been an intelligent, ironical adaptation. The group squabble like a pretentious book group. They are pure ciphers for the debates that have already been stated, with brilliant eloquence, by Chinua Achebe, Edward Said, Gail Fincham and many others. Needless to say, these intercrew arguments are stilted and boring.

And when we come to the live filmed bits – what imitating the dog call ‘digital scenography’ – the video filtering and green screening is very good, but the whole thing is distracting. These film-within-a-play are usually pretty kitschy, like a thoughtless movie, set in an unnamed atrocity-strewn European town that does absolutely nothing to comment on the humid horrors of the original.

Then there’s the wearisome deluge of references. Yes, Heart of Darkness has been adapted many times over. Yes, you are entering a field of hypertextual confusion. But I’m sure the whole bibliographical list gets a mention in the two hours and a half running time. There’s Tarkovsky’s Stalker, Mad Max, Dawn of the Dead, The Walking Dead. Apocalypse Now. (Those zombie allusions are accompanied by an incredibly intellectually lazy digression).

The actors pull in some decent performances. Although the climactic Kurtz speech is a ceaseless flow of psychobabble. Kurtz talks on about avarice, an adolescent murder, vague horrors – just inept film villain dubbing.

In Conrad, Kurtz’s last words are famously unreported. Marlowe chooses to edit out his evil turn when he takes a bundle of papers back to his Intended. Let mine by clear: this meandering work needs to be adapted.

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