Interview: Heart of Darkness

22 May 2013

Can an epic novel be adapted into a one-man show? Lizzie Mahoney interviews Heart of Darkness director, Maddie Skipsey, and actor, Guy Clark.

One-actor shows are notoriously difficult to successfully produce; without a talented director and principle actor, a one-person show can seem self-indulgent and even dull. However, the Dryden society’s Heart of Darkness, directed by Maddie Skipsey and starring Guy Clark, is shaping up to be a stunning adaption of Joseph Conrad’s novel. Maddie’s production uses the one-actor medium to great effect, allowing it to tell a deliciously unsettling story of one man’s journey through the African jungle into the subconscious recesses of his mind.

Guy Clark is currently preparing to play Marlow, the English sailor who embarks on a mission to make contact with the elusive and maniacal ivory trader Mr Kurtz. This is an intensely demanding role, both physically and mentally since Guy has to perform a thirty-five page script as well as assume the roles of the many characters Marlow encounters along his journey. Watching him in rehearsal is fascinating: he alternates between the weary storyteller Marlow, the erratic Russian trader, and Kurtz’s beloved widow with striking ease.

Guy approaches the roles of Marlow’s companions not as individualised characters, but as fragments of Marlow’s own mind: “They’re all slightly overdone, because I’m not really playing these characters, but Marlow’s interpretation of them… because they’re all filtered through Marlow’s mind, there’s always the question of, ‘how far is this a certain character, and how far is it only the way Marlow sees them?'”. This production questions whether Marlow’s narrative is a true representation of events or only an interpretation, and asks: can we ever really communicate the stories of our lives? Are our stories impaired by memory, which colours and distorts our perceptions?

Of course, any adaptation of Heart of Darkness can’t ignore the novel’s ambivalent approach to issues of race and colonialism, and Guy sees this as an integral aspect of the story which cannot be excused or overlooked: “Marlow’s a pretty sympathetic character most of the time, but even he is a product of his age. He’s not part of the awful colonial operation, but neither is he unduly ahead of his time… he views his African crew in a completely dehumanising way… he refers to them as ‘savages’, at best, ‘instruments’ to help him in his operation.” Maddie hopes that this unsettling aspect of Marlow’s character will lead the audience to feel “really complicit in what he does”, and that Guy’s direct addresses to the audience will implicate them in his actions, evoking a mood of tense and uncomfortable disconcertment.

This one-person show never feels hindered by its lack of a large-scale cast and production. Maddie leaves much of the narrative’s detail to our imagination, and yet the combination of Conrad’s language, which writer George Johnston has kept very close to the original text of the novel, and Guy’s storytelling skill, means that we can absolutely picture everything Marlow describes. Maddie sees Conrad’s description of the landscape as having “a very sublime, imaginative quality”, and this is kept at the forefront of this production; the minimalist set design allows the language to take centre stage, evoking a picture of the ‘whited sepulchre’ of the colonialists’ European headquarters and ‘the horror’ of their rapacious operation in the Congo.

This production promises to be a fascinating exploration of the unsettling nature of Europe’s colonial history, as well as an intimate portrait of one man’s attempt to tell the story of his life. If you feel like switching your brain off in the middle of exam term, then this might not be the play for you, but Heart of Darkness looks as though it will be a powerful and challenging adaptation of a novel which raises vitally important questions about Empire, race and the subjectivity of interpretation.

Heart of Darkness is on at the Corpus Playroom, Tuesday 21st to Saturday 25th May at 7pm.