A popular trend in recent modern cuisine has been towards deconstructing recipes; the elements of food which go to make up a dish are deliberately separated out and then represented in an unfamiliar form which highlights individual components. This is much the strategy adopted by multi-media theatre group Imitating The Dog in their 2019 piece Heart Of Darkness, the starting point for which is Joseph Conrad’s famous novella. All the original elements are there but, somehow, they are both recognizable and unrecognizable at the same time. This makes an audience look at the fiction in a completely new way and helps to highlight the many difficult themes of which the text consists.
Conrad’s book is notoriously divisive in this day and age. It can be argued that the text is a condemnation of racism and it can also be claimed that it is an homage to imperialism; some critics have found it to be both and still others have given the opinion that it is neither. This production cleverly tries to incorporate all these differing viewpoints in a collaged synthesis that challenges and edifies. The original follows the path of Charles Marlow travelling from London to the heart of the Congo to extricate the renegade company employee Kurtz who has gone rogue. The characters are still there albeit Marlow is now a woman and the journey is reversed as she travels through a war-torn alternate universe Europe towards Kurtz’s lair now situated on the edges of a bombed out London. The heart of darkness is effectively relocated to the once centre of imperialism. It is now Europe itself which is an ungoverned mess and dominated by warring factions – again a neat switch round of the original.
Interspersed between the scenes of the narrative comes a metatheatrical construct purportedly showing the members of the acting company devising, rehearsing and discussing the various contentious aspects of the original (racism, capitalism, gender politics and so on). This is, of course, as fictional as the main story though it is totally believable as a process that the actors may have been through. The heated debates and positions which they all adopt adds further tension and raises the notion that the heart of darkness may not so much be in the text itself as in our reactions to it. It is a clever device which adds depth to what is on display. Also weaved through are references and allusions to, among others, Shakespeare, T.S. Eliot and Raymond Chandler and his famous private investigator creation Marlow(e). And then there are the references to one of the most influential films of the twentieth century, Apocalypse Now, which was heavily based on Conrad’s book.
This is a really interesting way of putting together a thoughtful yet powerfully theatrical patchwork although it has the potential to be thoroughly annoying if the allusions are not understood. Technically the team take their trademark mash up of theatre and film to further dazzle the viewer. The five performers act in front of and operate cameras to livestream their performance to three giant overhead screens. Use of greenscreen technology places their performance in context and any props are passed into and out of frame. It also means that minimal furniture is required; a couple of chairs is soon transformed into a car, for instance. Imitating The Dog’s technique is both to show the viewer a scene and simultaneously show them how it is put together. Far from ruining the magic it actually enhances it and has one scratching one’s head at the complexity of it all.
The actors are a tight unit headed by Keisha Greenidge’s Marlow. Both the character she is playing and the constructed version of herself in the debate sections are on journeys of discovery. The other four participants play a variety of roles and particularly impressive is Matt Prendergast. The final “showdown” when he becomes the monster Kurtz is electric and, to my mind, he does a much better job than Marlon Brando manages in Apocalypse Now. Co-writers and directors Andrew Quick and Pete Brooks have done a mammoth job in shaping the text and choreographing the action to provide a highly unusual piece of theatre and the additional level that now pertains (that we are watching a video of a theatrical troupe filming a piece of drama) actually adds another layer. Interestingly I feel entirely the reverse of what I felt when I watched another Imitating The Dog piece, Night of The Living Dead – Remix some months ago. Maybe I’ve just got more used to the whole area of online theatre over the weeks and am coming to the realisation that this is, indeed, the new normal.
Production photos by Edward Waring
Heart Of Darkness is available on Imitating The Dog’s website. Click here
As a curtain raiser I also watched the company’s short site-specific film of Arrivals and Departures. This was a poetic installation using projection, lights and music and showed Imitating The Dog in rather more restrained and reflective mood
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