Heart of Darkness at the Rep Studio ‘brings stage and screen together in alchemy and harmony’

THE THREE Artistic Directors of ‘Imitating the dog’ Theatre Company state it has been about ‘as challenging as it can get‘ to devise and stage Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’. That’s true of writing this review too as I attempt to put into words the glorious bombardment of the senses I experienced whilst watching it in the REP’s Studio.

The opening is an interview with Franz Paul Stangl, an SS commander in Nazi Germany who was part of the infamous T-4 Euthanasia Program, (one of many spine chilling roles performed by Matt Prendergast) – a close up of his face on an overhead screen captures his unrepentant arrogance and removes any comfortable barrier that might exist between actor and audience. Besides setting the theme of genocide and internment, this is also an introduction to Simon Wainwright’s production and projection design. Through his vision we are taken on the most incredible journey.

A huge panoramic green screen backdrop is revealed, initially proffering a black and white photograph of Conrad staring out and challenging us to understand his message. There are three further square screens suspended above the acting area, sometimes used individually, sometimes collectively. Stage-wise the set is simple – props tables reside either side of the stage, there are two practical movie cameras on dollies, some flexible metallic acting blocks and the odd chair. So much is to come from really so little.

Conrad’s 1899 novella is acknowledged to be one of the most important works ever written about the impact of colonisation and with the world stage shifting to seeing emerging nations repeating the same patterns it is undoubtedly of the same relevance today. It also inspired such diverse works as Raymond Chandler’s detective series and the Francis Ford Coppola’s ultimate anti-war classic ‘Apocalypse Now’.

This production concerns the timeless lust for power depicted in the novella and sets it in a forsaken Europe where there is only despair, horror and more horror. The main character of Marlow in both Conrad and Chandler’s stories are white and male whilst here Marlow is black and female. Keicha Greenidge proves she is every inch a feisty, comic book hero match for any male Marlow contender. Keicha’s is a powerful, multi-dimensional performance. The close up on screen final shot of the tears rolling slowly down her cheeks will haunt me for days.

The rest of the flawless, tight-knitted charismatic cast comprises Morgan Bailey, Laura Atherton and Marven Macbeth in a liquorice allsorts collection of roles – all superbly delivered.

There are some other very clever creative touches – some of the discussions the artistic creators had are incorporated into the production in ‘the story so far sections which are clever and relevant. as too are the audible stage and camera directions. There are inventive scenes where an actor speaks the words in perfect sync among others. Martin Sheen in scenes from ‘Apocalypse Now’, which have a double relevance to the play, and the use of hand-props green-screened into the action, is pure artistic genius. For example, a simple round wheel hand held on stage by an actor sitting in a chair becomes a moving truck travelling along roads where an enemy waits in ambush. A special shout-out for the technical manager and lighting designer Andrew Crofts who choreographs the magic effects from the gallery.

No doubt this show will have criticism from theatrical purists who will say film belongs in cinema and live acting on stage, but I believe here the two work in alchemy and harmony to create a unique artistic environment, which draws on the strengths of both disciplines whilst diluting nothing.

I would happily watch this production several times and hope to catch the 2019 tour somewhere on its travels. It’s only a short run.

Heart of Darkness by ‘Imitating the dog’ Theatre Company runs until Saturday, November 24. Catch it if you can!

Visit https://www.birmingham-rep.co.uk/whats-on/heart-of-darkness.html for more information and tickets.

Review by Euan Rose

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