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Europe is the dark continent in reworked classic

Heart of Darkness, Belgrade B2, to May 11. Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness, written 120 years ago at the height of European imperialism, tells the story of Charles Marlow’s journey up the Congo River and into the heart of Africa, to find the mysterious Kurtz.

Acknowledged as one of the great texts of the 20th century, it is hard to read in the 21st. While the book exposes the horrors of colonisation in Africa, Conrad's description of Africa as the dark continent, combined with unconscious racism, makes it unpalatable contemporary reading. However, things are changing in Europe. The rise of nationalism and nostalgia for a time of empire makes it possible to retell the story as a cautionary tale. This exciting production by the theatre group Imitating The Dog, transforms the story into a journey across a devastated Europe. Marlow is now a female Congolese detective, sent by the government in Kinshasa to seek out Kurtz, a European military leader.

Europe is now the dark continent, ravaged by years of war and famine. There are no countries, only fiefdoms run by military leaders, the most successful being Kurtz. A play within a play, the scenes skilfully flip between the main narrative and the cast preparing the play, and discussing how they can use Conrad's original messages to reflect current events. They confront each other with questions over racism, capitalism and colonialism which arise from the story. Projections of related texts and images accompany their discussions. The live performances are fused with cutting edge digital technology. Cast members film each other against a backdrop of a ruined cities and forests to depict Marlow making her way through a devastated Europe run on a Nazi-style, labour camp system. Spliced into this are scenes from Apocalypse Now, the 1977 film based on the novella.

It all sounds complicated but it works thrillingly well. Keicha Greenidge is stunning as Marlow. Her face enlarged on screens above the stage shows the emotional and terrible journey she takes through the ruins of Europe to her final confrontation with Kurtz. Matt Prendergast manages to remain chilling as he moves between roles.

It is not an easy production to watch: you have to concentrate. But the message is powerful and stays with you long after the final curtain call.

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