Facing the Heart of Darkness
Adapting Joseph Conrad's challenging work for Radio 4 drama.
My interest in Conrad is longstanding. My first theatre play was a notoriously terrible adaptation of Lord Jim, with a student theatre company. Thirty years and sixty plays later, my interest was rekindled when I read about oil prospecting under swamp forest in the Republic of Congo, and the toxic mineral-grab in Eastern and Southern DRC. I thought of Heart of Darkness, reimagining it as a contemporary story where corporations replace colonial powers as the exploiting force. I was excited by the idea, but also daunted by both the book’s literary status and cultural legacy. I was aware of Chinua Achebe’s critique.
I was also inspired by an impassioned speech from wildlife cameraman Vianet D’jenguet's in his documentary 'My Congo':
'Whoever wrote Heart of Darkness was wrong; this is a place of light'.
I wanted my own version to put DRC characters at the heart of the story as active protagonists who spoke for themselves, in their own languages. I wanted the landscape to be rich and beautiful, with 'light glancing off the stained-glass wings of enormous dragonflies, and iridescent Congo sunbirds'. I also knew I was carrying an ‘intolerable presumption’ of understanding, and a big responsibility.
I pitched the idea to the BBC Radio Drama in February 2020 and was commissioned in October 2020. It was to be an accelerated ‘fast track’ production, with just three months between green-light and recording. That timeline is important as two things had happened between pitch and contract: Covid 19 and Black Lives Matter.
Covid 19 had big practical implications for my research phase. When writing stories about things I have not experienced, I meet and talk with people who have lived it. This can involve individuals, whole groups, perhaps opposing groups, and sometimes encountering the story as it happens. I back this up with a lot of reading. Exiled from Paradise, Just Whores, Gull Therapy, Countrysides and many other of my plays followed this research model.
Across lockdowns, I wasn’t able to do this. I was able, however, to work remotely with Ange Kasongo and Tracey Nyemba. Ange is a DRC political commentator and writer, and I needed her critical eye. I found Tracey through her Lingala teaching YouTube channel, and she became a cultural advisor. They were supportive and generous, but I really missed sitting and talking, growing conversations and networks.
Black Lives Matter sent ripples through the project. I felt this alternative Heart of Darkness should still be told, but I questioned whether I was the right person to do it. BBC Radio Drama encouraged me to continue.
Recording was done remotely. Each actor performed at home in DIY sound booths (in one case, a wardrobe), across the UK. Voices were connected by high bandwidth recording tech, engineered from Cardiff by Nigel Lewis. Me and director James Robinson communicated by WhatsApp. It worked amazingly well.
The process had its challenges. But I trusted the people around me to challenge me and interrogate the text. It has been an amazing journey.
I start and finish with my love of the novel. It was so in advance of its time, in narrative and construction. The brutal truth of Conrad’s lived experience blazes through every page. I believe when Conrad talks about ‘darkness’ he isn’t talking about a people, a landscape or a continent, but the dark potential at the heart of us all. We lose sight of it, wrapped in the normal constraints of law, family, religion, political-stability and satellites. But when those things fail we are forced to look inside ourselves. Do we find values of self-governance and compassion? Or are we the ‘flabby, pretending, weak-eyed devils of rapacious and pitiless folly… going at it blind’.
That’s the horror. It’s as current now as it ever was.