Angus Warrender caught up with Lancaster’s own Andrew Quick on the upcoming production of Heart of Darkness:
One of the most exciting things about Heart of Darkness isn’t so much the original text, but how it’s adapted. Apocalypse Now, Spec Ops: The Line, now this. Were the shadows of those previous works hanging over you as you worked on your Heart of Darkness?
Definitely. What was interesting about when we started to stage our adaptation was how much we referred to past versions. We knew about the videogame, and of course, we knew about Apocalypse Now, but we also knew about other films which we knew were versions of Heart of Darkness. Even more oblique texts we looked at and thought “Hang on, this has some nods to Heart of Darkness in it as well.”
It’s strangely haunted literature, like how you’ve got Raymond Chandler’s P.I Philip Marlowe – as a nod to Conrad – and our play’s Marlow is a private eye as a nod to that. We were moving around all sorts of texts as our reference points, not all of them clear-cut adaptations of the original novel.
On that note, adaptations are a challenging field to work in. If you’re going to make radical changes to a text, then each one is subject to scrutiny. What made you decide on this specific idea, commenting on adaptation as you create one?
I suppose our adaptation was looking at two parallel things: one was how much the novel predicted the ravages of the 20th century – the evil committed under the influence of colonialism and rampant capitalism – and the other being how humans have become commodified and expendable as a result. The problem we had when we started to think about the novel – and it’s a problem all of these adaptations have – which is how to handle the one-sidedness of colonisation when we can look back and see both sides historically. And we spent a great deal of time working out a way to get around that problem.
The phrase “flipping the original story on its head” has been used regarding your adaptation. Once you started writing out your changes, did this become the intent? To create something that both counters and compliments the original novel?
We sort of evolved our way towards it through rehearsals and writing it. We started with a kind of “Writersroom” situation, where these people were making a movie, and what they discussed would suddenly appear around them. So one would say “So Marlow arrives in Brussels” and then another character would butt in and say “Why does it have to be Brussels?” And the stage and screens would change as they did. Our original idea was this imaginary space that would always be changing to fit the problems of adaptation, but it became too overwhelming when we started working on it. We decided to keep a little bit of this idea of the process, but mainly we tried to tell this story of reversing the original.
The original has been a problematic text over time, though, with Conrad himself being called a “thoroughgoing racist”. Was this part of the thinking as you made changes?
We always thought it was more complicated than that. We were prepared to see it as having a racist dynamic, but we were more open to the debate of whether it was explicitly racist or dealing with racism. So in effect, we had to reframe it and reform it to gain a new perspective. Having reversed it geo-politically, we need to modify it in terms of gender as well.
And here we have your take on Marlow, who in your version has had both their gender and race swapped.
We wanted to highlight this idea of Marlow coming from a colonial-free Africa, in an alternative history where the Second World War never really ended. This removed the original problem of Marlow being somewhat racist in Heart of Darkness, and how Marlow doesn’t understand – and is entirely unwilling to understand – the indigenous peoples. And we do have a bit of that. Our Marlow still has a bit of a problem listening to the other culture, making her, a woman added another layer of “otherness”, almost. She’s alienated not only by the landscape and the culture but also by her gender. And does that create possibilities or close possibilities within a fiction? How is she treated?
In regards to this particular fiction, what does Marlow encounter?
She’s on a mission: not to kill Kurtz but to bring him back to the Congo, because of his talents. Marlow travels across these ruined motorways – which was our “river” – from Berlin to the French coast until she faces off with Kurtz in Greenwich. We thought that was good fiction, and we were cautious about this fiction, of course, because it depended on so many leaps of faith on the audience’s behalf. Like, an Africa untouched by the horrors of Colonialism – horrors which defined the 20th century – it had to be innocent of those terrible historical events to make this version more credible. They had to come to this torn-apart Europe, without Europe ever really affecting them before. Once we started that logic, we got trapped in that idea. It haunts a lot of the story.
So when Kurtz “goes native”, he’s not so much changing as embracing Euro-centric ideas?
Exactly, he’s taking the logic of the system he’s in and taking it to the absolute extreme. And he defends his position in this world, particularly in one big speech he delivers. Kurtz gets rid of all the hypocrisy and takes this brutal form of capitalism to it’s purest form, and he does it better than anyone else.
What’s also interesting as what you’re doing is how you’re doing it, having your actors essentially shooting a film of themselves while also performing live on stage. I can imagine that it was quite trying on the cast and crew.
We do a lot of that, so I suppose our regulars are used to it. We got two new performers, Keicha and Morgan, and both of them come from a mixed theatre-film background, so they were also pretty good with adapting to a kind of filmic way of making the work. We sort of have three screens, and a sort of live film crew with the actors in front of green screens as well, so it was almost like stripping back to a very crude and simplistic performance while also having this sophisticated technology all around to create a beautiful landscape all around.
I’m assuming we still get “the horror, the horror”?
Oh, of course.
Tickets for Imitating the Dog’s production are available from the Dukes website for Tuesday 19 to Saturday 23 March: https://dukes-lancaster.org
Tickets to the Matinee on Wednesday 20th March are available for £10 at a discounted price for students on showing your student ID.