Review: The Heart of Darkness

Anna Lively 25 May 2013

Corpus Playroom, Tues 21st- Sat 25th May

This adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, directed by Maddie Skipsey and written by George Johnston, plunges the audience into the depths of the colonial nightmare. In this one-man performance, Marlow (Guy Clark) narrates his journey along the Congo River where he encounters the terrifying power and despair of the ivory-trader Mr Kurtz.

Telling such an expansive narrative with a simple set, based around a few wooden boxes, and a cast of one may seem over-ambitious for a student production. Without any visual aids, it is up to the character of Marlow alone to pull us along the Congo in a stream of sensations, memories and encounters. There were sometimes difficulties and Clark’s narration was most potent when he allowed Conrad’s descriptions to bear their full weight. At times the shifts between accents and voices seemed rushed and uncertain. Clark must be credited though for the captivating intensity of his monologue; by the second-half his characterizations were wholly engaging. The writhing body of Kurtz on the wooden boxes and the Russian man’s impassioned veneration of Kurtz convincingly revealed the seductive nature of power.

The lighting design by Henry St Leger-Davey was fundamental to making the audience imagine the ‘horror’ of Marlow’s tale. At one point, a red light falls upon the stage and the audience is suspended in the silence as Marlow looks out at the coast before him. At another, flashing lights generate a sudden urgency as the savages’ arrows fly and feet scuffle across the forest. Shadows cast across the stage bring every movement of working savage into life, emphasizing his very humanity and Marlow’s intrinsic connection to him. The use of sounds effects was suitably sparse, and the bare atavistic cry of the savages is brought into piercing reality by Conrad’s words rather than being artificially created, thus achieving a more lasting impact. Whispering voices provide a link between the beginning and end and remind us of Kurtz’s final revelation of “the horror, the horror”.

Overall the image of colonialism given by the play is one of despair, a far cry from images of European triumphalism and the hypocrisy of Kurtz writing a report on the ‘suppression of savage customs’ is clear. Kurtz’s cry of “my ivory” betrays man’s obsession with power and possession, showing the reckless greed of the imperial ambition. Yet the narration is far from didactic or moralizing. Marlow proves unable to separate himself from the atrocities committed by Kurtz or the savage cannibals, and instead is forced to accept that they are part of him and part of ‘man’.

At one point in the play the character of Marlow stands before the audience and asks whether they can see anything of his “dream”. The answer, silently, was that they could. In a sense, any ‘imperfections’ in Clark’s performance of Marlow are not imperfections at all. Any hesitations or blunders are part of the character of Marlow and embody his own struggle to communicate this disconcerting vision of humanity.

Anna Lively