The legacy of Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novella, Heart of Darkness, is a deeply controversial one. Its racist portrayal of the African continent – specifically the Congo – as a site of barbarism and savagery, as well as the degeneration of white colonisers, is well-noted. Naturally, a great deal of criticism has been levelled at the work in the years following its publication, yet it remains a staunch fixture of the English canon. How then does one go about adapting such a contentious work of literature to the stage? The answer for Imitating the Dog is an obvious one; by acknowledging said criticism and following in the footsteps of other adaptations – like Apocalypse Now – and re-siting it.
Imitating the Dog transfers the events of the novel from ‘darkest Africa’ to an alternative version of post-Second World War Europe wherein no victors emerged, and the continent is reduced to warring fiefdoms that operate labour camps akin to those operated by Nazi Germany. Marlowe, portrayed by Keicha Greenidge in a gender-swapped reversal of the original narrative, is now a private investigator from Kinshasa. Sent to Europe, she is tasked with travelling across the lawless continent to London via motor car where she must recover the enigmatic Kurtz, who runs the most successful labour camp in Europe.
From the opening alone, it becomes clear that this adaptation will not shy away from delving into dark subject matter. This becomes readily apparent through a recreation of Gitta Sereny’s 1971 interview of Franz Stangl, the former commandant of Treblinka, in which he described viewing the prisoners there simply as ‘cargo’. It’s a stark and sobering opening, and one that allows the company to set their intentions from the start. Imitating the Dog seek to highlight that the titular darkness lies not within Africa, but rather within Europe and the colonisers who brought such atrocious acts to the continent in the name of progress. It’s a bold move, and one that translates surprisingly well, successfully helping to re-contextualise the titular darkness of Conrad’s original work.
The sparse stage, simply adorned with chairs, raised platforms, and green screen, is expertly transformed thanks to the theatre company’s penchant for projection and camera work. The live cameras stream directly to the screens suspended above the stage, allowing for backdrops and scene setting to provide a deeper complexity to proceedings. Much of Conrad’s original work is rooted in first-hand description, which makes transferring it to the stage difficult, but Imitating the Dog makes it feel frightfully real.
These moments are, for the most part, aided by voiceovers that help establish character, place, and action – especially Laura Atherton and Morven Macbeth who often find themselves contradicting one another. Unfortunately, while Imitating the Dog’s technological work is impressive, it is not always successful. Between the three screens, the action unfolding on the stage, and the narration by the actors, it is difficult to know where to look. Ultimately, this leaves the entire affair feeling incredibly muddled at times.
That said, the performance remains a strong one. Interspersed with the main narrative lies an additional one wherein the actors themselves discuss the ethics of staging a production of Heart of Darkness in 2020. Greenidge and Morgan Bailey argue with their white co-stars over the racist depiction of Africa, Conrad’s intent, and the success of other adaptations. The actors even go so far as to address direct criticism, citing Chinua Achebe’s seminal essay ‘An Image of Africa’ – which is frequently taught alongside Conrad’s novel – as well as displaying images of mutilations and amputations performed by King Leopold II’s brutal regime in the Congo.
These moments neatly break up the main narrative, especially as much of the novel unfolds while Marlowe is stranded in a trading station, which would be quite boring on stage. Furthermore, together it creates a rounded and nuanced experience that delves into the complexities of crafting an adaptation that serves to inform an audience that might otherwise be oblivious to the impact and legacy of colonialism in Africa.
Imitating the Dog’s Heart of Darkness is a gripping adaptation that masterfully re-contextualises Conrad’s original work for the modern era, and does so in a conceptually brilliant way.
Heart of Darkness is available to be streamed on Imitating the Dog’s website here.