ITD at 21: Andrew Quick on reimagining Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’
Heart of Darkness as an idea for a show had been in the mix for some time. In previous pieces we’d made the novella’s narrative and themes had come up again and again in rehearsals. And of course, Pete and I had been hugely affected by Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, his reworking of Conrad’s original story, but now set in the Vietnam War. Indeed, as an 18 year old and still in my sixth form at school, I saw the movie twice in its opening week in September 1979. A lot of our work had deliberately drawn on journey narratives, referencing Dante’s Inferno, Orpheus, The Waste Land and maybe it was inevitable that we would go back to this story of a journey that traced a leaving of a place of civilisation to find truth in a continent that was described as being dark, alienating and somehow connected to the brutal reality of an unrestrained and stripped back condition of humanity.
So, we took on Conrad’s novella. And we always knew it was going to be a problem, although maybe at the start we did not realise quite how we would solve some of the challenges Conrad presented to us. Although we admired the storytelling and loved the rich set of other works that had clearly been influenced by the narrative, Conrad’s focus on the European experience of colonialism at the expense of those who were largely exploited by the imperial submission of Africa was a huge difficulty.
Very early on we came up with the idea of a kind of reversal – that our Marlow would make the journey from an affluent and peaceful Kinshasa to seek out our Kurtz in a war-ravaged Europe. Indeed, we always wanted this final confrontation to take place on the Thames, near London, so that our version concluded in the very place that Conrad’s story began – at sunset, as Marlow looked out across the river, as the evening sky closed in, on a ruined London. And there was a certain anger that drove our version, that always fed into and ghosted around our adaptation: the anger and, of course, the shame, of Britain’s role in the colonisation of the African continent; also the anger that arose out of the debates around the UK’s relationship to Europe, the result of the European Referendum and the shadow of empire that seemed to haunt all discussions of our past and future relationship with the continent and the wider world.
So, a broken and devastated Europe felt a natural place for us – one that we could now not only imagine but actually lived in.
One of the other problems we encountered in the novella was the question of gender – there are not really any women in Conrad’s story and we were quickly drawn to the idea of making our Marlow a female, a woman of colour from the Congo, a figure that would largely journey through a male dominated world that had produced devastation via an unleashing of unrestrained and malignant capitalism. As Conrad had hinted in the original, the heart of darkness was not in Africa, it was and always had been in Europe, on the Thames, that great gateway to the empire, to the Land of Hope and Glory.
It was not easy rehearsal process and our adaptation absorbed and reflected many of the debates and struggles we had in making the show – and I feel it was much the better for it. How far we moved from the original was always a big question for us. We feared our audiences would somehow feel cheated the further we pulled away from the specifics of Conrad’s writing. Here we come down to the economics of middle scale touring, how far to take risks, financially and artistically. You live and survive from show to show in this game. And you have to at least break even.
Well we did both. When The Morning Star made Heart of Darkness one of its theatre highlights of 2018 it felt like a vindication and an acknowledgement of our struggle and achievement. In the midst of the current election and political debate in the UK this feels important. To be able to tell a great story and to somehow engage with the histories and ideas that matter, that still affect us all and haunt the world we want to create and make our lives within in the future. This feels so crucial.