Wolfram Lotz’s surreally comic critique of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and the film it inspired, Apocalypse Now, picks apart the “white saviour” complex and enduringly colonial narratives of Africa.
Anthony Simpson-Pike amps up the German playwright’s absurdist quirks in this Monty Pythonesque production. The play is structured as a series of sketches with outlandish comedy, non-sequitur sequences and even a parrot skit (not dead, but talking).
It starts with its only story from an African – a pirate from Mogadishu who speaks in a Hamburg courtroom about his capture. The stage is hijacked by two German officers, Sergeant Pellner (Travis Alabanza) and Stefan Dorsch (Seraphina Beh), who have been tasked to find the renegade Lieutenant Colonel Deutinger.
It is dark, funny and potent stuff, though too jumbled to be a joined-up story. The sketches turn more surreal (there is a fake interval in which cucumber sandwiches are offered to the audience), and some lose themselves in their own kookiness and ever-decreasing circles of surrealism.
The men do not travel into the Congo but down the Hindu Kush on Rosie Elnile’s stripped-back stage, which offers little other than a green carpet, denoting the forest, and a cartoonish map marking the journey on a screen.
On the way, the men encounter an Italian commander who calls the locals “savages” and Carter, a slippery pastor in a gold lamé suit, who tries to convert the “natives” while leering at the “brown skins” and “round bottoms” of the girls. Shannon Hayes alternates as various orientalists and steals the show as the gyrating reverend.
The rest of the cast give exuberant performances: Rochelle Rose is the most affecting as the charismatic pirate looking for a better life. The anti-bromance between Alabanza’s Pellner and Beh’s Dorsch threatens to turn into something more chilling as the journey progresses and this creates a buzzing fear alongside the comedy. The audience is taken into the darkness as the lights snap to black and the auditorium is lit up only in flashes.
The current white saviour debate about celebrities doing charity work in Africa is never mentioned, but its relevance sounds clearly by the end when actors reflect on narratives beyond Conrad’s, and invite us to think about who tells stories about Africa and who is silenced by them. “In the version by Francis Ford Coppola we did not speak at all … In the version by Bob Geldof we did not know if it was Christmas-time …”