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Heart of Darkness at The Barnes Old Sorting Office Arts Centre – Review

Heart of DarknessA damning indictment on the state of European colonialism, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is a haunting tale of cruelty and exploitation. Adapted in 1979 for the film ‘Apocalypse Now’, this well-known story has received a breath of new life, illustrating that almost 40 years later its social commentary, sadly, retains relevance.

Growing up with a desire to explore, Marlow longs to voyage along the rivers of Africa. Sailing through the free state of the Congo he hears stories of the great idealistic ivory trader Kurtz who is both loved and revered by the local ‘savages’. Delving deeper into the world of natives and traders he learns that Kurtz is a man of questionable morals, with a propensity for cruelty, leaving us to wonder – to whom does the title of savage really apply?

George Johnston’s adaptation for Scandal and Gallows Theatre is minimalist in nature, adapted for a single actor and focusing on raw emotion rather than production value, ensuring there is nothing to distract from “the horror” embedded within the original text. Truly great theatre is about storytelling and simply put, storytelling lies at the heart of Johnston’s production. Directed by Madeleine Skipsey, the piece transitions from moments of frank honesty and direct address to the audience, to scenes of complex two-way dialogue performed by a single actor.

The set is a simple assortment of blocks shifted at various intervals, bought to life by the exquisite use of lighting. A highlight of the show is the use of silhouette, which is particularly haunting during Kurtz’s deterioration and provides a visual representation of the emaciated natives described earlier in the piece. Without giving too much away, the parallel between the script and lighting in the final moments of the piece is executed with a gorgeous poetic synergy that is remarkably evocative.

Guy Clarke gives a superb performance in the role of Marlow… and every other role for that matter! His ability to transition between characters, notably with a vast array of accents, shows pure talent and refined skill. His energy onstage is undeniable and his physicality exhausting to watch! His commitment to the character and the honesty in his delivery his bone-chillingly sincere. Marlow’s inner conflict as he comes to terms with the ways of Kurtz becomes an almost tangible tension within the performance space, evoking both empathy for Marlow’s state of disillusionment and repulsion at Kurtz’s ‘rationality’.

The piece runs for just over an hour which, given the heavy nature of the story, is somewhat of a relief. At times, however, it does feel as though the narrative jumps without adequate explanation. For someone unfamiliar with Conrad’s original text, it could be difficult to grasp the intentions of each character – particularly when their individual motivations are insidious and convoluted to begin with!

A fresh and earnest adaptation of a disturbing story, Johnston’s Heart of Darkness examines issues of race, greed, power and ambition without pretention and with sincere emotion. The production is true to the ‘heart’ of Conrad’s original text but carries a renewed energy sure to resonate with modern audiences.

4 stars

Review by Cassandra Griffin

Join Marlow on the deck of his steamboat, as he recounts the story of his traumatic journey down the Congo River deep into the dark, greedy heart of European colonialism. Stripped back to the essentials – one man, the objects around him and his story – this adaptation draws out the intensely personal narrative in Conrad’s tale. A voyage through Marlow’s fractured memories of his confrontation with the darkest truths of his society, a confrontation that led him to the very edge of his sanity. After a five-star run at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe this searing one-man adaptation of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness comes to the OSO.

Directed by Madeleine Skipsey, the piece transitions from moments of frank honesty and direct address of the audience, to scenes of complex two-way dialogue performed by a single actor.



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