The new production of Heart of Darkness surfaced at the Dukes this week promising a modern take on this classic testament to Imperialism; the result was so much more.
I have never seen a production that worked so well with many different elements – besides the central acting component; it incorporated a multimedia element as a method of telling the story with screens poised above the stage, used to show aspects of the story and provide the audience with context and criticism of the original novel. This included context on the African Congo and infamous critics such as Chinua Achebe who has become synonymous with ‘Heart of Darkness’.
Although the incorporation of this multimedia element to provide the audience with more knowledge was impressive, at times it perhaps made the flow of the play a little jarring. Additionally, with the use of several screens and cameras, the production team included several cut scenes from ‘Apocalypse Now’ a film which follows the story of ‘Heart of Darkness’. Although at times the dialogue from the film was used as a commentary on characters like Kurtz or simply to provide more information on this interpretation of Conrad’s novel, I felt having not seen the film that I somehow did not get the full experience of the play as ‘Apocalypse Now’ was something the production referenced several times. These two aspects, however, are my only criticisms of the production.
Besides the multimedia aspect of the play bringing it into the 21st Century, the directors also chose a 20th Century setting of concentration camps in Treblinka to make the story more modern and demonstrate that Conrad’s tale of social injustice is universal. The choice of the 20th Century setting rather than the original African Congo setting is a choice explained in one of many cut scenes where the actors imitate a ‘writer’s room’ setting and debate artistic decisions that will affect the play. One of which is the fact that in the 21st Century it is unacceptable to tell a story of black subjugation where black people are unable to narrate such a story. And thus the play establishes itself as progressive, a fact they also established in the choice of a female as Marlow.
This creativity also created changes in the plot. Talking to the cast and directors after the show revealed that changes such as the ending (spoilers!) where Marlow is witnessed shooting Kurtz rather than Kurtz dying from an illness was chosen as a way to “stop the moral rot” of this book. In shooting Kurtz, Marlow is participating in mercy killing rather than handing Kurtz over to the Company.
Throughout the play, although there are aspects of the story that divert from the original plot, the crew maintain that the differences parallel the original story. For example, the final scene where Marlow returns to The Company to inform them that Kurtz has died, only to lie to them about the circumstances around his death parallels the final scene in the book where Marlow lies to Kurtz fiancé about his final words; instead of “the horror! The horror!” Kurtz’s fiancé hears that his last words were her name.
All I can say is that I marvelled at this production and writing about it cannot do it justice. The modern multimedia element was genuinely revolutionary, and although at times it may be difficult to take in what they present on the screen as well as the stage, I came to realise that one would not work without the other. The creative artistry of this production is something incredible and something I have not seen before.