The Ridiculous Darkness is an irreverent and feral little journey, this time not to the heart of darkness, but to something else. The ceiling of the Gate Theatre’s space feels somehow closer – everything feels a bit close, from the actors, to the sharp writing, to the quick turns from genuinely disquieting moments to, yes, ridiculousness.
This is a playful staging of Wolfram Lotz’ radio play, directed by Anthony Simpson-Pike and with dramaturgy by Nina Segal. The Ridiculous Darkness appears to be Lotz’ only English-language play, but it’s received several international productions, testament perhaps to the ubiquity and still-strong pull of the narrative in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and its most famous adaptation, Apocalypse Now (1979). What will man find in this jungle, which is not his jungle? Nothing good, we know.
But still we have no choice: the “jungle” bursts in on us. We first hear the testimony of a young Somali man (a deft Rochelle Rose), defending himself against the charge of piracy with a gentle, sensitive humour: he and his friend, Tofdau, had wanted to be fishermen, but on seeing the shining bottom of the sea one day, empty from neo-colonial over-fishing, he naturally turned (with miserable consequences) to a degree in piracy. We hear the sounds of a street from Mogadishu and the giant wave which took Tofdau, presented as evidence.
And then two troops commandeer the stage and the narrative – a Colonel Deutinger must be found, so it’s an expedition up the Hindu Kush for them and us. In a nod to the play’s sonic origins, the pirate is relegated to a glass soundbooth to score the play and witness. The jungle, somewhere colonialism has not yet penetrated deeply enough, still wild and treacherous, is abruptly where we are.
There’s an excellent appreciation for texture here; Lotz’ writing, translated by Daniel Brunet, takes a sometimes ribald, sometimes subtle joy in language. You believe this nonsense, Bleak Expectations-esque world of an officer reduced to apoplectic grief at the way the “natives” don’t piss or dispose of their litter properly, and the terrible omen of seeing the shapes of a childhood home you recognise in a cut-open mango. Perhaps a feel for texture is necessary when teasing out a radio play into something visual (in its nightmarish climax, there’s a satisfying and awful crunching of glossy VHS tape intestines underfoot).
This is the right cast to bring out the horror and humour: Travis Alabanza perhaps has the toughest role, as the narrating Pellner, given to increasingly distressed attempts at philosophising, but always upright and stiff. As the second troop, Dorsch, Seraphina Beh’s comedic emphasis in her shouting, squatting, and throwing herself around the stage is supreme. In several roles Shannon Hayes shows herself as a confident delight, with her reedy, strained voice as Lodetti and oozing sleaze as the white Reverend Carter, an evangelising hippy prone to a singalong.
Though the production is irreverent, it is super politically-engaged, as letters of Lotz’ (real? They could be) admitting to his accidental omission of women from his narrative are read out during a “fake interval”, and implicit in the casting here of Black women and non-binary people is a criticism of the way in which we assume and allow the lampooning of colonialism to take place. The last scene – in which characters are shed and the layering of versions in this piece acknowledged – is grounding in the way the actors check in with each other, but becomes a little heavy-handed right at the end. The way they’ve delivered the piece itself here can be trusted to deliver the criticism, no trouble at all.
The Ridiculous Darkness isn’t subtle, but it’s surprising – even disturbing, at times. As things start to go wrong, a blue strip light blinking overhead, we move into a period of profound blackout, and I feel vulnerable, though I know the actors won’t touch me. They don’t need to.
The Ridiculous Darkness is on at the Gate Theatre till 23rd March. More info here.