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Director Andrew Quick on Heart of Darkness


The Cast of Heart of Darkness - Photo by Ed Waring HOD-Birmingham-FINAL-PRINT-011-1675

We asked imitating the dog’s Co-Artistic Director Andrew Quick, about the thinking behind the imitating the dog production of Heart of Darkness.

Why is imitating the dog staging Heart of Darkness?

‘First of all, it’s a novel that we have often referred to when making our work.  And what’s interesting about the novel is how much it has influenced other novels, and films – Apocalypse Now, for example.  And the figure of Marlow, the man telling the story in Heart of Darkness, he appears in detective fiction as well. So, it’s a very important and influential novel but there are real problems with it, especially in its representation of Africa and the people who inhabit what was then called the Belgian Congo.  This makes it a challenging novel but one of the ways we have approached our adaptation is to make our own struggle with Conrad’s writing a crucial part of the staging.’

What are you taking from the novel for your production?

‘It’s a period of time that we are very interested in. I think an important strand of our work has been making a series of contemporary history plays but the focus to date has been on the period around and just after World War Two.  So, looking at an earlier part of British and global history has been a new development for us.  We are taking some of the historical context from the original but re-imagining from our particular point of view.  We take Conrad’s story of the river journey and reset it as a road journey across a devastated Europe and our Kurtz is not in the depths of the rain forest but in a bombed-out building on the edge of London.  Our Marlow is not a sailor but a private detective from Kinshasa, and she’s a black woman, not a man.  So, we are reversing or creating as parallel version based on Conrad’s original. We keep some of the plot and tone, but it is a radical re-imagining.  And this story, which is used to create a live film which is projected above the stage action, is framed by our struggle to deal with the Conrad, a kind of witty and condensed version of our actual process – our journey into our heart of darkness, if you like, – the heart of darkness of its making.’

 How is imitating the dog approaching Conrad’s novel?

‘Well, as you can tell we are not being too reverential.  But we are being respectful in many ways.  Look, I think I can speak for the others when I say we like much of the novel but there are real problems in how it represents the victims of the colonialism it describes. It does not give them any kind of voice.  And this is a profound problem that we have to deal with.  On the other hand, Conrad seems to predict much of the horror of the twentieth century and observes how Europeans tested out their version of devastating capitalism and exploitation in the colonies before turning the lessons of this exploitation on themselves in the Europe and indeed in all other part of the world.  So, we are dealing with the novel in a radical way, but one that we hope engages and entertains our audiences.  I mean, we tell a great story and those who know the Conrad will see how it connects and those who don’t will hopefully go to the novel, if they’re interested, to see what the connections are.  But you don’t have to know the novel to enjoy the show – you’ll just have a different experience.’

Will people recognise it as an imitating the dog production?

‘Yes, I think they will.  It looks amazing and tells a vibrant, exciting story that will hold your attention.  And the show deals with ideas – discusses them, which is another kind of storytelling. It uses live filmmaking and uses projection, so it has our stamp on it, but I think it’s also taking us in a new and exciting direction.’

Who are imitating the dog’s audience?

‘We tour to mid-scale venues and are very aware that those audiences are very interested in the company. Because of our use of technology, we obviously appeal to a younger audience and students, but people my age – I am 58 – we are really interested in this age group as well. That’s what is exciting about middle scale touring – you can reach such a wide range of people.  We want people to see our work because we feel that we have something important to say – I mean, why else would be doing it?’

 Others have tried to translate Heart of Darkness to stage, film or television but not succeeded. Has imitating the dog cracked it?

‘Yes, there have been numerous attempts to adapt the novel.  And many have been considered failures.  So, we are aware of this history.  It would be very arrogant to say we have cracked the novel because, well, it’s a very difficult novel to crack or indeed, pin down. All I can say is that I think we have been honest in our dealings with the novel and we have re-imagined it in a really exciting way.  I look forward to seeing how audiences react to it.’

What’s next for imitating the dog?

‘There are two projects that we are working on – Europe After the Rain, a small-scale piece that looks at our relationship to Europe and Night of the Living Dead, based on the 1968 film, which will be a middle scale touring piece.’

Heart of Darkness tours till the 11 May




Photo by Ben Pugh

Interview by Steve Pratt

How did you get involved in adapting Graham Greene’s novel for the stage?

I was commissioned by director Esther Richardson and Pilot. Esther came to me and said she really wanted to work with me and did I know Brighton Rock? I said I knew it a bit. As I always do with an adaptation I read the book and if I love it, I do it and if I can find a way of doing it – even if it’s going to be hard – I also do it. My absolute rule for doing any work at all is that the heart lifts at the thought. I will say yes if I have time to do it. If my heart drops I won’t. I have turned down certain novel because I don’t feel any infinity with them.

How well did you know Brighton Rock?

I read the book a long time ago. I have never seen the original film but, quite by chance, had seen the latest 2010 film version with Sam Riley and Helen Mirren. I’m avoiding seeing the original 1947 film until completing the adaptation, then I am going to treat myself to watching it.

Why adapt Brighton Rock for the stage?

Because it is such a treasure chest of narrative delights. It has got everything…It’s a love story, a revenge tragedy, a small-town murder mystery, an array of small-time gangsters and a middle-aged woman who knows no fear and who will stop at nothing to do right. In the poisoned relationship between Pinkie and Rose, there is one of the best accounts ever of what it is like to be 16 and 17 years’ old in a terrible, violent, adolescence

How much collaboration was there with director Esther Richardson in shaping the adaptation?

We first talked about a framing device and whether you can update it but when I went away I thought you can’t update it. There is a very different feeling to the time when the book is set. What I had to do was find a way of making it modern and cool but that’s very much suggested not shown. After four drafts I don’t know who has had most ideas. I think it was Esther who decided that musician Hannah Peel should be part of it, which was a very good idea. The music is going to be a huge part of it. It feels like a very free collaboration. That’s the sign of a good partnership when you ask ‘did I think of that or did Esther?’.

You’ve adapted a number of novels for the stage – what is your approach?

Every one is different but sort of the same. The basic thing is you have to find a strong way of doing it. What’s different is that sometimes one has to re-write a lot and sometimes that’s just changing dialogue. Brighton Rock the novel has some very strong dialogue which has a very strong flavour. Graham Greene has done a terrific job.

Do you have a particular theatre in mind when writing?

Not a particular theatre or space. But when I am writing anything I somehow have the space of the play in my head, the landscape of the play, the dimensions of the stage and the possibilities. That’s why I love doing adaptations, turning it from a book into something actors long to invigorate. But it’s not limiting myself to a particular concrete theatre.

How will Hannah Peel’s music work in the production?

I did a version where I wrote what music it suggested to me. We played this and had a workshop and everybody gave suggestions for the music that it suggested to them. Hannah has listened to all that. It started with her and a girl drummer making music in the room which we thought is the way to go. And so we have live music. What we are aiming for is a strong period flavor but a strong cool modern approach.

What’s the difference between an original play and an adaptation?

They are all new plays. The difference is that with adaptations I get an extremely gifted co-writer who is no longer with us and who agrees with everything I say really. I refer to myself as assistant because I think my job is to provide the theatricality and make the stage the home for this particular writer’s works. They do a lot of the lovely work, they do the character and the plot. They do a lot of work for me in in a very decent way.

Brighton Rock is at York Theatre Royal from 16 Feb-3 Mar and then tours till 26 May. For tour dates visit




 What is the play about?

After his father’s death, Eric, a 60 something drifter, has come home to re-open the family Chip Shop. He wants to re-vamp the place and turn it into the kind of trendy chippy that serves Halloumi as the veggie option. On the restaurant’s opening night, Eric’s childhood sweetheart, Christine, turns up. They haven’t seen each other in over 40 years. Christine’s a Grandma – and a widow now. Neither she nor Eric has lived the life they imagined they would, and she’s wondering if there’s still time for one last big romance… Alongside Christine and Eric, we see Lee and Jasmine – two eighteen-year olds who may or may not be about to kiss for the first time. So, really, it’s a play about memory and possibility and first love and nostalgia.

 Why Fish and Chips?

I think fish and chips are brilliant. They manage to be both totally ordinary and a treat at the same time – I guess because they’re cheap but bad for you. They’re also strangely wholesome – I feel much less guilty feeding my kids fish and chips than I would giving them a McDonalds. For most British people, fish and chips are rich in memories – sharing a bag of chips with your first boyfriend because you can’t afford to actually eat out or windswept, rainy holidays in the Lake District or the first night in a new house before you’ve unpacked the pots and pans. Fish and chips are about comfort and family. They conjure a kind of instant nostalgia – and that kind of nostalgia seems to be everywhere at the moment from retro beards to vintage everything. I thought a Chippy might be an interesting world through which to explore ideas about tradition and family, nostalgia and aspiration and how the world has changed (and how its stayed the same).

What inspired you to write this play?

The idea first came to me when I was pregnant. For the first few months of the pregnancy, I could only stomach chips and the occasional cheese sandwich. So, I was spending a lot of time in chip shops. And one night – before a Box of Tricks production actually – my husband and I ate at the Olympus Fish and Chip Shop opposite Bolton Octagon. I was immediately struck by what a fantastic place for people watching it was. It was a place where people come together. I liked the idea of the story playing out while the audience ate. And straight away, I knew it would be a story about family and falling in love.

 How does the play fit in with your previous work?

I write about food a lot. I come from the kind of family where if someone is feeling low, you offer them a sandwich. So, this play definitely connects with that. I’m also really interested in every day drama, stories that seem small but which are somehow exploring what it means to be alive and part of society. Also, I used to work in the participation team of a theatre and I think this play connects to that – I wanted to write something that anyone could come and see and enjoy, including people who might never normally dream of stepping inside a theatre. It was important to me that the play felt truthful and was about lots of memories of fish and chips, not just my own, so we worked with community groups and youth theatres from both the Bolton Octagon and the Royal Exchange as part of the development of the play.

 What do you hope audiences will get from watching the play?

Well, Eric fancies himself as a bit of a showman and he is determined that everyone is going to have a good night. So, there’s a quiz, a bit of Northern Soul and some terrible fish puns. Alongside that, you’ll have these two love stories unfolding, which will hopefully capture something of what it feels like to be young and falling in love for the first time. I hope audiences have a good night out and come away with a full heart. And you get to eat chips.

How did you get into writing?

My Mum’s a writer and for years, that made me very determined not to be one. I saw myself as a creative person and just doing what my Mum did for a living didn’t seem to be a very creative choice. I worked for a long time as the Young People’s Programme Leader at the Royal Exchange. It was an absolutely brilliant job. It was incredibly rewarding and creative and I learnt a lot about how theatre works from my time there. But I couldn’t resist writing. I wrote bits for the young people I worked with and in my spare time, I wrote for myself too. I sent my first full length play to Box of Tricks Theatre and loved the experience of seeing something I’d written come to life on stage. So, I kept writing. I did more theatre projects, including more work with Box of Tricks and I also started engaging with the Writersroom at the BBC which got me into writing for radio and then TV. Eventually, I realised it was time to leave my job and admit that I was a writer whether I liked it or not.

How does it feel to see your work on the stage?

I write a bit for telly and for radio too and it is always a revelation to see what actors can bring to a script. But there is something uniquely brilliant about being in an audience, and seeing and feeling people around you respond to something you’ve created. It’s magical when the audience laugh in places you hadn’t anticipated or gasp at something you didn’t realise was quite that shocking. It’s also completely and utterly terrifying and with theatre the fear never quite lifts because even if the audience clapped last night, tonight they might hate it. But that’s the risk you have to take. My favourite bit is afterwards if you overhear the audience talking about what they’d have done in that situation or reminiscing about a similar story from their own lives – that’s what you’re looking for, to create something that connects.

How involved are you in your plays?

This was a fantastic process because it was very collaborative from the outset. I went to Box of Tricks with the seed of an idea and we worked on building the world together. Even so, I still feel that when the final draft is in – you are kind of done. I like to be around rehearsals, partly because it is a genuine joy to watch actors work their magic, but I think there’s a point where you have to step back and let other people own your script. It’s good to be there to facilitate the process – to tweak anything that isn’t working and to answer any questions but often I think the answers I have are less interesting than the answers the rest of the creative team go on to discover for themselves.

Which playwrights inspired you?

I saw my first Chekhov’s The Seagull as a teenager and have never got over it –Chekhov writes real people who are funny and flawed and heart-breaking and for me, that’s the holy grail. It’s also difficult to be a Mancunian playwright and not be inspired by Simon Stephens.

What do you hope Box of Tricks will bring to your play?

I love working with Box of Tricks. Adam directed the first full length play that I wrote and they’re a fantastic company for new writers. They care about every word of your play as much as you do.  They’re also a company who care deeply about their audiences –and about finding the right way for an audience to experience each play. When I first talked to them about Chip Shop Chips I didn’t know quite what I wanted the play to be, they immediately saw the potential for a tour to unusual venues, engaging new audiences.  They also have a real knack for bringing together talented people – they always find the actors and creatives who will really get your play.

What was the best bit of advice you were given when you started out?

It isn’t really advice about writing directly but… As a person, I’m not great at going outside of my comfort zone and as I got older and started having to take part in more grown up, social activities against my will, my Mum would say to me, ‘it’s all good copy, darling’. I think there is something in that… We get a bit obsessed with this idea of writers as reclusive artists – tucked away reading plays and working on their craft, but really for me being a writer isn’t about language, it’s about understanding and empathising with people – trying to get inside what makes them tick. To do that you have to properly engage with the world – even if on one level, you’d rather be at home reading a book.

 Why should people come and see the play

People should come and see the play for a good night out. Hopefully there are moments which will make you think but ultimately this is a warm-hearted play which will leave you with a full belly and a bit of a smile.

What is next for you?

I’m working on a new theatre project called the Girl from Ward Four. It’s about a teenage girl who is in recovery from anorexia, who falls in love with a boy she meets at a Child and Adolescent Mental Health unit. So, another love story – and in a way another play about food too.

Finally, two very important questions –

 Where is your favourite fish and chip shop?

It has to be the chip shop down the end of my road – it’s less than 2 minutes from my front door. Life-saver.

What is your favourite sauce to go on your chips?

I like chips with salt, vinegar, mushy peas and absolutely nothing else. For me, putting ketchup on proper chip shop chips is sacrilegious.

Chip Shop Chips tours from 23 Feb-21 Apr. For more info visit http://www.boxoftrickstheatre.co.uk