Mike Unrau's experimental adaptation of Heart of Darkness is set in modern-day Alberta, and explores the deeper concepts of Joseph Conrad's original novel.
courtesy Mike Unrau

Alberta’s Heart of Darkness

Calgarian play explores what it means to be human

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The novel Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad was both loved and reviled when it was first published in 1899, but the atrocities of colonialism presented in the book often obscure the deeper question at its core. Theatre Encounter, Calgary’s alternative classic theatre, explores the central question at the heart of the novella in the world premier of this modern reimagining. 

“The real question that Conrad was asking,” says Mike Unrau, director of the production, “was, What does it mean to be human?”

Heart of Darkness uses an existential lens to examine the controversial character of Mr. Kurtz and the god-like power he held over others. 

“The locals were equally afraid of him as they were in awe of him, and the question is, Why?” says Unrau. “What quality did he have as an individual to elicit that type of response?”

The original story was meant to draw attention to the Congo at the turn of the 19th century, when King Leopold was treating the colony like a fiefdom while brutally violating people for his own personal profit. Although Conrad was pivotal in bringing international attention to the atrocities in the Congo, he was also condemned for reinforcing racial stereotypes. 

“There were a lot of complications in what [Conrad] actually said,” says Unrau. “And there’s been a lot of critique from a feminist point of view and from a racial point of view that he was subjecting individuals to stereotypical notions of what it meant to be of a different culture or a different gender. So acknowledging that, we decided to make it a contemporary interpretation, setting it in Alberta instead of Africa.” 

Theatre Encounter is known for reinterpreting classic texts using experimental physical theatre renderings to engage the audience in a unique way. 

“The performance is not what you call standard theatre,” says Unrau. “It’s much more physical and sometimes this catches people off guard. We believe that a standard play, which has text and dialogue, really appeals to the intellect. Physical movement and dance is not as intellectual — it’s more visceral, which means that the audience is relating to the performance in a different kind of way.”

Direction at Theatre Encounter is heavily influenced by the work of Jerzy Grotowski, a Polish theatre innovator who created the concept of ‘poor theatre.’ Recognizing that film was largely reliant on technological devices, Grotowski moved to scale back the use of props in theatre and emphasize the actor-audience relationship. In order to achieve this relationship, the actor must remove energy blockages and fully connect with voice and body. The playwright for Heart of Darkness, explains Unrau, rendered the book into the essence of what Conrad was trying to say. 

“The rendering is what the actor and director works with in order to transform the book into a physical piece,” says Unrau. “We’re working off the heart of what Conrad was trying to say as opposed to a more literal interpretation. This is experimental because standard approaches to theatre tend not to do this. There are some elements that are similar but when you see the production you will notice it’s quite different.”

The show, which runs from Nov. 21–24 at the Theatre Grand Junction, incorporates elements of dance, movement, song and dialogue woven together to create a different type of experience that students, in particular, can appreciate. 

“I think what students often crave is something that is unique, something that is different from the norm, but something that still challenges them,” Unrau says. “This work will be challenging to many people, because it takes a different approach to the relationships between dialogue, theatre, movement and dance.”