Just when I thought we were beginning to move away from black stories being told through white eyes, the surprise win for “Green Book” for best picture at the Oscars last week told us all that white-saviour narratives were far from dead. That's something that Imitating the Dog are challenging. In their multi-media adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”, a story is reclaimed, a narrative is subverted, and the lines between literature, film, and theatre are inseparably blurred.
When it comes to the multi-media element of the show, words cannot do justice to the technical mastery of the dramaturgy. Above the stage hang three screens, cutting between shots of the actors on the stage, animations, filmed interviews from literary critics, film directors, and so on, and scrolling text giving historical context. Often actors will be barely facing but will be cut so they are sat opposite each other, or walking side-by-side. It ends up looking like a classic detective story from the golden age of cinema looks on the screen. A great joy of the show is being swept up in watching how it is constructed; how every line of an interview is perfectly in sync with the person saying it on stage, darting your eyes from screen to screen to stage and so on.
As well as retelling the classic (though wildly altered) novella, the cast also perform as themselves coming up with the show we are witnessing. Picking apart the arguments for it being a progressive novel or a problematic one, they find a way to tell it for a modern audience. Here, the show is less grand, less complex, and more organic. Even so, it doesn't slow down as one might expect. The dialogue of the actors (whether true to the performers themselves or personas) is sharp, intelligent, and leaves no stone unturned as they look at Conrad’s writing and all the many sources from film and literature that influence the show. Minor touches such as using lighting to make the shadow of ensemble member Morgan Bailey, who plays an array of characters, look as though he is very small ensure those scenes do not feel out of place in the performance as a whole.
Meta-theatre can sometimes come off as self-indulgent, but the cast make it work through their performances, both on and off camera. Out of context, their “character” characters would come off as hammy and overdone, but in fact they are perfectly in tune with the tropes of detective-thriller films that they are imitating. Keicha Greenidge gives a remarkable performance as Marlow, who goes in search of a missing man for a handsome fee. It says something about her performance that when she walks on the spot taking in all the destruction and chaos around her, which could end up looking silly given the naturalistic performance and distinct lack of destruction and chaos on stage, you are completely transfixed by the horror on her face as she is threatened, attacked, and ultimately confronts her own internal darkness.
The show is clever, there is no question of that. It is made by artists intent on pushing the boundaries of theatre. After a while though, the awe at the production wears off, and you start to realise how overwhelming it is. The concept alone is enough to make the audience take a step back. Now add an adaptation of the novella that is gender-swapped, moved from a journey down a river in Africa to a road-trip through Europe, Marlow being no longer an ivory trader but a detective, and the whole story is now set in a complex dystopian future where America and Europe have gone to the dogs (the political undertone of which barely requires comment). Add to that the fact that much of the stage direction is read out from the side of the stage as a screenplay (which oddly doesn't line up with what the audience actually see), and it all becomes far, far too much. As the show goes on the meta scenes of the ensemble planning the show start to feel like an excuse to try and explain their choices, but it’s not enough to break down your creative process if that creative process overwhelms the material you are working with. “Heart of Darkness” is a theatrical achievement, rich in detail that a theatre enthusiast will adore. Sadly, it sorely misses the mark in terms of its narrative and goes to show that sometimes less is more. Three stars.