As a new stage adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness heads to Yorkshire next month, director Andrew Quick speaks to Yvette Huddleston.
Adapting a classic novel for the stage can throw up all kinds of challenges.
The piece needs to be relevant to today and in line with modern-day standards and sensibilities. In this regard Joseph Conrad’s seminal work Heart of Darkness is quite problematic – it can be read either as a defence of colonialism or a searing indictment of it.
It is this knotty issue at its centre that has been faced head on by innovative theatre company imitating the dog in their acclaimed production, adapted from the 1899 book, which heads to Yorkshire next month.
The company enjoyed huge success with their 2014 adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms and when the creative team were thinking about another classic novel to adapt for the stage, Conrad’s 1899 novella came to mind for a number of reasons.
“We realised that in previous work we had often referenced Heart of Darkness, partly I think because it is such a good ‘journey’ story and links to some form of self-discovery, and we wanted a novel that had some complexity to it,” says director and adapter Andrew Quick. “When we first started discussing it, it was just after the 2016 EU Referendum so we thought it would be good to revisit a novel that has attempted to deal with some of the problems of Empire.” It does feel like an incredibly timely production, given recent political events and with Britain’s colonial history being characterised by some politicians with a very specific agenda as a kind of golden era.
Alongside that false narrative is also the hard, dismaying, fact that our relationship with Europe is going through a tense period, to say the least. “It is quite extraordinary that while we have been working on this there have been all these arguments about Europe, nationalism, the notion of statehood and all the things that might tear Europe apart,” says Quick. “It is a theme that we will continue to return to over the next few years. I think it’s going to be a theme for a lot of theatre makers and artists, thinking about the way that stories of the past can help us to understand the present.”
Having re-read the book and watched film versions of the story as part of their research, Quick says that one aspect which stood out was that the indigenous people were not given a voice. “So we came up with the idea of reversing things, making Europe ‘the heart of darkness’ and making the central character African.”
Whereas in Conrad’s original the narrator Charles Marlow travels up the Congo river into the Congo Free State, in this version the story is retold from the perspective of a Congolese woman travelling through a timeless war-torn Europe that has been destroyed by greed and a lust for power. At its core it is still Conrad’s story in the sense that it is about a voyage into unchartered territory, journeying into a dangerous unknown. “I don’t want it to sound too gloomy,” says Quick. “It’s not a comedy, but what we want to do is to create an interesting, gripping story. It is partly an adventure yarn wrapped around some very serious ideas.”
Cast, Doncaster, March 5 & 6 and York Theatre Royal, April 9 & 10. imitatingthedog.co.uk
Theatrical innovators with roots in tradition
Known for their highly original and innovative performance style – using hi-tech digital media to tell their stories – imitating the dog nevertheless conform to age-old traditions.
“We want the audience to be engaged, moved and enthralled by what they are looking at and some of that is done through the use of technology, but we are quite old-fashioned in the sense that storytelling is always at the heart of what we do,” says Quick. “It’s over 100 years since Joseph Conrad wrote Heart of Darkness and what is fantastic about that novel is that it is about someone telling a story to a group of friends.
“I suspect human beings have done that since they first found language – telling each other stories is part of what makes us human. We are part of that tradition – trying to understand the past in order to understand the present and prepare for the future. We always need to be looking forward but sometimes the horizon is cloudy and you need things to guide you.” Quick says he’s been alarmed by the kind of rewriting of history apparent in recent years, especially in relation to Britain’s role in the world, both as a former colonial power and in relation to Europe, particularly the idea that Britain somehow ‘saved’ Europe during the Second World War. “That narrative is not true,” he says. “I think one of the duties of artists is to revisit stories of the past and try and learn from them.”