Review: Heart of Darkness at Liverpool Playhouse

By Nigel Smith

JOSEPH Conrad’s 1899 novella, whilst widely hailed as a classic, has posed problems for readers and interpreters in the passing of over a century. It’s a sort of fin de siècle road trip in which the narrator Charles Marlowe, whilst on a barge moored on the Thames, describes a trip through Africa as captain of an ivory trading steamboat on the Congo.

The story explores the complex issues of racism, colonialism and capitalism and, in much the same way as his contemporary Kipling, Conrad’s work has often been reviled by modern commentators for seeming to glorify the things that it initially set out to challenge.

In writing this piece for the theatre company Imitating the Dog, Andrew Quick and Peter Brooks (who also co-direct the show) have not gone for anything approaching an adaptation of the text. Instead, they have their ensemble cast explore it from various angles as they discuss the many problems of trying to dramatise the work and, indeed, whether or not it ought to be done at all. At the same time it seems to be a story that simultaneously must and cannot be told.

The manner of staging is reminiscent of watching Sky News, where two thirds of the screen are occupied by the delivery of one item, whilst multiple other story threads are constantly rolling past in side panels and straplines. The stage is made up of four screens, three suspended above the front of the stage and the fourth stretching the full with of the rear wall. Performers act both on the stage floor and on two movable platforms, while others train video cameras on them. Their performances are projected simultaneously onto the upper screens superimposed over pre-recorded background footage using a chroma key technique. This way a stationary, miming actor can be made to appear walking through a townscape or driving down an open road in a car, alongside someone who is actually on a different part of the stage entirely.

This multi-channel approach to storytelling layers up the conflicting arguments about Conrad’s source text and is almost certainly intended to be unnerving, and in this it succeeds. This is a style of theatre that will appeal most readily to an audience raised in a world of multiple screens, who are able to take in several threads of information simultaneously.

One thing is for sure – some of the analogies hit home in comparisons with contemporary politics. The program note about the piece highlights a growing nostalgia for Empire in a country that is potentially severing ties with Europe with an aim to be ‘Great’ again. There are many more cultural references running through the play, from extracts from Apocalypse Now to footage of Brexit hustings, and the point both strong and well made.

There are a great many ideas in this piece, and its problem (if you perceive it that way) is that it presents them all at once. The experience is a little like having three courses of a meal served together on the one plate, but experienced multi-taskers should be able to get through it without getting indigestion.

This is essential, urgent, angry theatre dogged only by its own zeal, in which it slightly over-delivers.

Heart of Darkness continues its tour next week in Coventry.