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Heart of Darkness review at Birmingham Repertory Theatre – ‘cinematic and ambitious’

Laura Atherton and Morven Macbeth in Heart of Darkness. Photo: Ed Waring
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How do you solve a problem like Heart of Darkness? Leeds-based company Imitating the Dog’s solution is to take Joseph Conrad’s troublesome 1899 novella and all its inbuilt racism, chop it into pieces, then stitch it back together again before the audience’s eyes, making use of cinematic stylings throughout.

The premise is essentially a flipped, noir-ish, re-telling of Heart Of Darkness, set in an alternate universe where Europe has descended into squabbling, oppressive fiefdoms driven by profit and power. Our hero – Charlie Marlow – is a female, Congolese PI. She doesn’t find Kurtz in the heart of Africa, or in the jungles of Cambodia, but in a post-apocalyptic Britain.

Writer-directors Andrew Quick and Pete Brooks splice this with out-of-character literary discussions about the problems of the story, and with snippets of critics and adaptors – Francis Ford Coppola pops up – discussing it too. It’s all orchestrated with a whirlwind of microphones, cameras, and live-streamed projections onto four giant screens.

You can’t fault the production’s ambition, but it doesn’t quite come off. There’s no denying the imagination and intelligence that’s gone into Imitating the Dog’s adaptation. The show grapples mighty themes with clarity, dexterity and insight. But they also end up explaining away the emotion, and the five-strong cast never get to grips with the show’s technical complexity.

Co-artistic director and projection designer Simon Wainwright said this was the company’s most ambitious project to date. But while it’s conceptually breath-taking, it’s ultimately slightly underwhelming.

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Technically, conceptually ambitious interpretation of Joseph Conrad’s problematic novella that doesn’t quite come off.