There are blue skies over London as one of the creators of a new stage version of Heart of Darkness talks about their production. Yet, as they prepare to bring their reimagining of Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novella to the Tron Theatre in Glasgow this coming weekend, neither Andrew Quick nor Pete Brooks, who have written and directed the show for the Leeds-based imitating the dog company, are fooled by such an unseasonal burst of late February brightness. As we sit on the cusp (or not) of the UK’s impending departure from Europe at the end of March following the result of the 2016 Brexit referendum and all the ensuing calamities that have come in its wake, this is the case metaphorically as much as actually.
In the world imitating the dog has reimagined for Heart of Darkness, after all, Europe is finished, and London is a forsaken hell-hole rather than ‘the greatest town on earth’ as originally described by Conrad. Where the book has its hero Marlow sail up the Congo River into the then Congo Free State in search of ivory trader Kurtz, Quick and Brooks’ version recasts Marlow as a Congolese woman sailing in the opposite direction through a war-torn Europe towards the River Thames. In the current climate, perhaps turning the world upside down to explore notions of civilisation and colonialism isn’t as far-fetched as it might sound.
“Heart of Darkness was a text we’d referenced in rehearsals for other works,” says Quick, “and in 2016, just after the EU referendum, there was a lot of the language of colonialism and empire being used, and it felt like it was something that was very much on the zeitgeist, but there’s a problem in the novella in that it’s very much a Eurocentric view of Africa, and you don’t really see any indigenous culture, so by doing it in the way we’re doing, it’s an attempt to answer some of the problems that the book raises.”
Setting the story in what was effectively a parallel universe wasn’t without its problems. As Quick explains, “It opened up all sorts of contradictions. We had to work with the idea that Africa hadn’t been colonised. In our world, Africa had to be stable and relatively untouched. That was a historical big ask, and it allowed the woman to come in to Europe, but with a certain kind of distance. One of the films we referred to a lot when we were making the show was Alien, in that for this Congolese woman going out from Africa to bring back Kurtz is a bit like going out into space and bringing back a monster.”
It was another film that reworked Conrad’s book in an equally audacious fashion. Apocalypse Now was Francis Ford Coppola’s epic sprawl deep into the hallucinogenic underbelly of the Vietnam War. Where Coppola’s vision tapped into the woozy fallout of one of America’s greatest follies, Brooks and Quick’s take on it sounds closer to dystopian fiction.
“It’s not saying it could happen here,” says Brooks, who goes further than Quick in relating their take on Heart of Darkness to current events. “At the moment there’s this enormous nostalgia for the idea of empire, but we have to be clear that nothing good came from that. All that happened was that this enormous wealth went into the pockets of a few wealthy capitalists. Empire has affected everything since then, and is at the root of many wars in North Africa, the middle east and beyond. So when Nigel Farage starts quoting Kipling, it makes me feel nauseous, and I want people to question why it is we’re falling back into this horrible idea of little England.
“Europe was an ideological project, which is about not having wars anymore. In that respect, the politics of the show we’ve made are relatively easy to get a handle on. It’s pretty clear that the European colonisation of Africa was evil, but it’s not simplistic. Ultimately the roots of the current situation come from colonialism, and from the mess we made of it. In that way, whatever we do with it, this is not an ironic show. This is heartfelt, and is quite an angry show.”
Formed out of Leeds University, imitating the dog have been putting their unique spin on things for twenty-one years. Drawing their name from a catalogue of work by painter, Eric Fischl, best known for his depictions of American suburbia, this set out the company’s visual store from the start.
This is utilised by way of the company’s three-way artistic directorship between Quick, Brooks and video designer Simon Wainwright. Wainwright’s work has previously been seen at Edinburgh International Festival, where his video designs for David Greig and Graham Eatough’s staging of Alasdair Gray’s novel, Lanark: A Life in Three Acts, helped it win a best design award from the Critics’ Awards for Theatre in Scotland. Brooks meanwhile, spent many years working in Scotland as part of the Benchtours company before joining imitating the dog.
Quick likens what the company have attempted with Heart of Darkness to a graphic novel, with much of the filmed imagery for the play made using green screen.
“We’re collaging live action and film,” he says, “but how do you find a theatrical equivalent of reading, which is all about using your imagination?”
This is a question made even more significant when dealing with material that feels so close to home.
“I think that within Europe just now there’s a crisis of identity,” he says, “which is partly about what it means to be a country, and what it means to be a nation state. With what’s going on in Scotland, that’s the case twice over. Our show isn’t an answer to that. On one level it’s a yarn, but on another it’s an exploration of a certain time in contemporary life when this idea of empire is being raised from the dead. Although our version of Heart of Darkness isn’t specifically about Brexit, it’s the ghost that haunts it.”
Heart of Darkness, Tron Theatre, Glasgow, March 7-9.
The Herald, February 5th 2019