Heart of Darkness: Responses

In November the LANS Community went to see a performance of a play based on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre. This show generated a lot of discussion within the department and we have received responses that we are excited to share.

A ticket for the performance of Heart of Darkness

Below we hear very different takes on the performance from Mark Joselin, a second year LANS student, and Dr Emil Toescu, honorary LANS lecturer and senior lecturer in Neuroscience. The contrasting perspectives make for an interesting read!

Mark Joselin (Second Year Student)

One of the most exciting things about any piece of art is how it can have an array of meanings for different people. Each line in a song can have a different resonance, each scene in a film a different meaning. What’s more, the creators often want this. Yes they have injected it with their own meaning, but they don’t want that to be a barrier to how others interpret it. They want their art to reach out to people in any way it can, and these different meanings for me really bring enjoyment to my viewing of art. And this is one reason why I was frustrated by the production of Heart of Darkness I saw at the Birmingham Reparatory Theatre.

The production started off promisingly, with the recreation of an interview from the 1970s between a journalist and a former Nazi officer who ran a concentration camp. It’s well performed and really sets an atmosphere. The use of cameras here is well used to communicate the intenseness of what we are watching, with a close up on the face of the former Nazi officer showing every movement of his face. At the same time the staging is not hindered by it – in fact it adds to the intenseness further – all eyes are on him.

I want to briefly comment on the staging here, before I delve into my thoughts on the plotting. The use of cameras feels quite unique to begin with, and you can see the value in it, but it ends up not really going anywhere. Because they want to accommodate for the cameras, they don’t use the stage as interestingly as they should, resulting in weak theatrical staging. Meanwhile, with one or two notable exceptions, the camera shots don’t spark much inspiration. This is hindered further by the fact they speak out loud stage directions, which they are not using, which describe far more interesting shots and staging than we actually get to see. Why describe a really impactful shot set up if you are not even going to utilise it.

The story then shifts to its main strand, their interpretation of the original story. I was not familiar with the original Heart of Darkness, so I went in blind expecting something quite powerful. However, I ended up feeling quite confused to exactly what was going on. And that’s because the play only spent half the time on the play’s story.

Yes, thirty minutes or so in, as the character we are following is on embarking on their journey to recover this man from a destroyed Europe, the story stops, and we are suddenly watching the actors from several months earlier discussing how they will interpret the play. And this is where much of the audience’s free will goes away. The play all too quickly becomes so wrapped up in saying what it wants to say, that it doesn’t actually allow the story to say it. This is what many describe as the storytelling sin of ‘telling, not showing’.

What is meant by this is that instead of showing us that something is some way, they tell us it instead. Honestly, it is quite a lazy technique – it means the creators don’t quite know how to show it. And I think this is a technique used frequently in the play. Instead of showing us in any sort of clear way the sort of setting we are dealing with, they tell us. Instead of merely showing us why it matters that the play’s perspective is now that of a black woman (a brilliant choice I hasten to add), they feel the need to explicitly say it, patronising the audience. Most importantly, instead of showing us that it is a story that matters, they tell us repeatedly that it is and why, leaving the story underserved in actually getting to show why it matters and stripping the audience of opportunity to develop its own interpretations.

Not only this but these scenes don’t even feel that well written: they spout all these different views on the texts, try to legitimise their creative decisions rather than having confidence in their own choices. The references and brief glimpses to other works were also confusing, and were committing another storytelling sin in themselves: don’t reference another piece of work that will make the audience wish they were experiencing that instead, in this case as soon as I saw Martin Sheen’s character walking about on the projection I was more interested in what he was doing in ‘Apocalypse Now’ than what was happening on stage.

But I understand what they were trying to do. They wanted to show how a work could be “reclaimed”, and show how ‘Heart of Darkness’ has been reclaimed before for different purposes and they were trying to do the same, making it fit for the modern age. And that in itself is an honourable thing to do. But it takes so much out of its runtime exploring the power of adaptation, that it not only takes too much time away from the story itself, it also takes away the watcher’s opportunity to interpret.

I think for people familiar with ‘Heart of Darkness’ it will have been a powerful and interesting stage production, exploring something that rarely gets to be studied. But an adaptation needs to be self-contained, and not reliant on familiarity with any previous texts, and I believe in this regard it failed. I shouldn’t feel the need to pick up a book to explain the motivations of characters in a play I just watched. It should be self-evident.

Overall, I think this production of ‘Heart of Darkness’ had good intentions going in, but got mired down by the fact it wanted to say something interesting about the power of adaptation that the story itself became confused and lost, and the powerful words they wanted to say lost meaning because they were not present enough in the story itself.

Dr Emil Toescu (Honorary LANS lecturer and senior lecturer in Neuroscience)

Dazed and confused. No, not that Led Zep song from their first album, but my state of mind at the end of "imitating the dog"'s Heart of Darkness production. Where were we? Well, we started with a close-up on Charles Marlow - no, not a traveller, but a private detective (certainly, nothing to do with Chandler's Marlowe, or maybe yes?, anyway what does a final 'e' count for?). Marlow: is a woman detective - you can call her Charlie. Marlow: she's a black woman detective, because the program tells us that Conrad's story is 'retold for today'. Maybe she is the future No2 Ladies' Detective Agency, a (spiritual) daughter or Mama Precious Ramotswe? Anyway, this is not Botswana, this is Congo, and we start in Kinshasa, and our modern Marlow is asked by somebody representing somebody else to go to fetch Kurtz (we are told, with a sense of educational care, that Kurtz means "short" in German; since apparently, Marlow knows a lot of languages, this might be an effort to educate us, the (English) public, who might not be that fluent in all these foreign languages). Where should  Kurtz be brought from? Well, from Europe, from the 'heart of darkness' - you hopefully duly noted, already, that a classic, retold for today, requires inversions ... you get my gist! So, what is happening to explain this inversion? Difficult to say! We start at a (Nazi) concentration camp, Treblinka, and the horrors of that time and space, where humanity was transformed into a "cargo", but Soviet gulags are not mentioned, neither the Serbian atrocities or the West-imposed if not destruction, at least West-mediated suffering in West Asia (Irak and Afghanistan). I thought that Kurtz then represents the "guard", the "exterminator", the oppressor, who needs to be brought back for justice. But that was not the case, and to understand better (or get more confused) provides a lot of help for the (presumed) helpless audience, and we are given an insight into the critical analysis of Conrad's novel, with extensive read-outs (felt at one moment that this an attempt to encourage us to start an elevated and professional reading club!). In these discussions, there is one man, who's the driver of the conversation (maybe an impersonation of the director and script-writer (or adapter?): Pete Brooks) and then there is the rest of the cast, who chips in ideas and interpretations. We find out, for example, that for this new interpretation they should not have to travel along a river - too boring, too conformist, too old fashioned?! - but along a motorway! in a landscape of destruction, that counts as a new and interesting take. They are certainly trying to make sure that they tell us what to think about what we see, and how to interpret; and provide also, for information, wikipedia-like bits of further information: a little bit of info about King Leopold's ravages in Congo, a little bit of Patrick Lumumba. It emerges from this discussion that the novel is all about this European colonialism, and how Conrad, writing in 1899, portrayed that world, in racist terms, with the black local people just "brutes". Clearly, his story needs retelling and reversed - and nowadays, you see, it is the Europeans that are becoming zombies, consumer zombies, and their life and heart and souls are destroyed by ... - yes, you guessed right: capitalism (mercifully, or forgetfully?, Thatcher was not mentioned in this 'cutting', 'sharp' and 'subtle' critique of the darkness at the heart of European society). 

And if one talks about the Heart of Darkness, one cannot avoid making reference to Coppola's "Apocalypse Now" - and the last quarter of the show, probably the best, is a reworking not of Conrad's work but of Coppola's work, starting with minutes-long cuts from the film, with female voice-over and gesticulation projected over David Hopper's portrayal of the photojournalist (maybe seen as the objective observer, but still in awe and bowled over by Kurtz's persona). And then the last extended scene of the production is, in effect, a stage adaptation, with all the script notes: "cut to: Kurtz by the window" or "cut to: Marlow still sleeping", etc, of the final scene of the film, the meeting between Sheen and Brando, powerful, psychotic, full of a quiet and distressing danger (although Matt Predergrast does not have quite the same presence as Brando had). 

Dazed and confused yourselves? - well, you get my gist...

Yes, we live at a time in which currents of authoritarianism, of nationalism and racism are re-emerging, a time at which a fundamental choice, as that encapsulated in the Brexit debate, raises for some the nostalgia for a past of Empire power and influence, but without asking, not even for a moment, on what basis that imperial richness was built. Conrad's novella is certainly a very good opportunity to engage with the themes of power, racism, imperialism, humanity; and many have done so, Conrad's work being considered a seminal one. But to enter in such a territory, one needs to make sure that they have something new and relevant to say - otherwise it's better to re-watch Apocalypse Now - you are not going to find out factoids about Congo, nor are you going to learn how to do a textual analysis, but you are going to be transported to a very strange and dangerous territory about the mysteries and ambiguities of being human.