‘Heart of Darkness’ by Imitating the Dog – A Disorientating Reflection on Modern Society

Springing from the success of their excellent adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s ‘A Farewell to Arms’, Imitating the Dog return to the stage with a technologically challenging reinvention of Joseph Conrad’s controversial and infamous novel, ‘Heart of Darkness’. Disorientation, bewilderment and fragmentation are all what makes this production exceptional; and for what those three words imply the message is but concise and clear.

Entering through Theatre Door 2 at the Arts Centre, Aberystwyth, there is an unusual sight that greets the audience. Three projector screens sit above the stage which seats a simple set of two tables, three chairs and two cameras upon mobile tripods. From the outlook a foolish person would discredit the lack of design, yet it is this simplicity that defines the production. A stage does not have to be busy for it to say something special, but special it does. Some would say special is an unusual word to use, but it connotes something new, something that is magical or unseen. Chinua Achebe, in 2003, commented that ‘Art is not intended to put people down’, and Imitating the Dog have recognised this, creating a play that is a redesigned creation of the main plot of the novel, and thus throwing light on what the novel means to them.

What excuses this simplicity is the focus, via the use of live cameras on stage, to stream the actor’s faces onto the three screens above the stage whilst the play is performed. With layers of filters, green screen, occasional patches of texts and a gorgeous symphony of music and light to accompany the acting, the audience is present in a showing that leaves you unsure of where to look. Should you look up and witness the provocative and clever expressions of the actors faces, alongside the video editing that is utilised on these screens? Or do you stray down and witness the set being continuously moved around – what is essentially the rawest part of the production? Either way, you are forced to make a choice of what to observe, a method that disorientates the audience and prevents you from seeing everything in the performance. Some may call that sly, but some would also call that good theatre.

‘Heart of Darkness’, a novel that, on a very basic level, witnesses Charles Marlow narrating the story of his voyage up the Congo River and into the heart of Africa, is one of the most critically acclaimed pieces of literature of all time. Simon Wainright, the video designer for Imitating the Dog, commented on how ‘there would be issues, because the text uses racist language that is very much of its time’. Their reworking of the novel into this production demonstrates how they have tackled those issues. The switch from a male actor to a black female lead as Marlow, as she makes her way via roads and plane across a fictional desolation of Europe set in the mid-twentieth century, creates a revived performance of ‘Heart of Darkness’ that tackles modern day conversations about race, gender, nationalism, colonialism, interpretation and fragmentation.

The touring company’s two-strand approach to the performance assists this disorientation that the audience feels during its two-hour screening time. You bear witness to the explanation of the reasoning behind their interpretation of ‘Heart of Darkness’ whilst simultaneously watching them act what they are explaining. It’s confusing at times, yet eye-opening and thought-provoking throughout, and a fresh addition to theatre. The strongest message that resounds from the production is one of Europe, not Africa, that is representative of the Heart of Darkness, an entity whose internal, throbbing conscious holds colonialism in high esteem and twists light into a façade to hide what it truly feels. The condition of Africa at the time of the novel results because of the arrival of Europe: a mutated virus that hides itself under beacons of hope and saviour.

Leaving the seriousness of the production for a moment, it does hold moments of discussions that bring humour to the forefront of what is a provocative conversation. Yet, even within this humour are moments of truth that at times speak louder than the bulk of the play. The debate on whether to host the world as one plagued by zombies (as ‘consumers’) who have one task in mind – to eat/infect human beings – reflects on the attack upon capitalism that creates an eerie hilarity where one is unsure of how to react. Equally, when one of the actors exclaims how ‘radical’ it is to have a woman play a man’s part, another of the cast merely states how it isn’t ‘for a woman’.

This review comes with a high recommendation for this production. It is not every-day that a play can leave you understanding the necessity of conversation in a world plagued by isolation and a reluctance to speak freely.

Imitating the Dog will be touring across parts of the UK until May (see below).

  • 20 – 24 November | 7.45pm (Mat: 20 & 24 at 2.45pm) | The STUDIO at the REP, Birmingham Repertory Theatre | Box Office 0121 236 4455 | birmingham-rep.co.uk
  • 5 – 6 March | Cast, Doncaster | Box Office 01302 303 959 | castindoncaster.com
  • 7 – 9 March | Tron Theatre, Glasgow | Box Office 0141 5524267 | tron.co.uk
  • 19 – 23 March | The Dukes Lancaster | Box Office 01524 598500 | dukes-lancaster.org
  • 26 – 31 March | Theatre by The Lake, Keswick | Box Office 01768 774411 | theatrebythelake.com
  • 2 – 3 April | Northern Stage, Newcastle | Box Office:0191 230 5151 | northernstage.co.uk
  • 9 – 10 April | York Theatre Royal | Box Office: 01904 623568 | yorktheatreroyal.co.uk
  • 12 – 13 April | New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich | Box Office: 01473 295900 | wolseytheatre.co.uk
  • 16 – 18 April | Lowry, Salford Quays | Box Office 0843 2086000 | thelowry.com
  • 1 – 4 May | Liverpool Playhouse | Box Office: Tel 0151 709 4776 | everymanplayhouse.com
  • 8 – 11 May | Belgrade Theatre Coventry | Box Office 024 7655 3055 | belgrade.co.uk

For more information, see here:

Chinua Achebe, father of modern African literature – https://www.theguardian.com/books/2003/feb/22/classics.chinuaachebe

Simon Wainright interview – https://www.thestage.co.uk/features/interviews/2018/video-designer-simon-wainwright-theatre-imitating-the-dog-interview/