Last night, I attended a theater production in Østerbro called “Heart of Darkness” based loosely off of the Joseph Conrad novel of the same name. I’ve read the book (under the duress of English class), so I had a vague sense that this would not bring out the best side of human nature. My friends from Vienna, Germany and Serbia had no idea what was going on, and hadn’t heard of the book. Most of the performance was in Danish, but it didn’t really matter.
We were among 30 audience members to be guided into the heart of Africa by a methodically slow-speaking and ominous woman speaking in Danish. At least this was my guess as she drew the continent on a large piece of thin black wall, punched a hole in it, and motioned us to follow her through the hole and down black corridors. We entered a completely dark room and were introduced to seven characters who positioned themselves under misty spotlights. I suppose we were asked to choose one of the characters, but it was in Danish, so I wandered around until someone nudged me into a spotlight with another group of people I’d never seen before. When the characters asked “why did you choose me” in haunting voices, I was pretty perplexed.
Probably out of sympathy, everything switched to English as we were individually “registered” by Danes with typewriters who were seated at least four feet off the ground. Feeling small under the thumb of bureaucracy, we were moved to the other side of the typewiters where before us lay piles and piles of dirt, gloomily lit and surrounded by the smell of burning things and the throbs of a distant heartbeat. A silent actor led our group through the dark dirt field. He stopped at points to command us to literally wash him of his sins, then choose people at random to demonstrate how to kill a human (I was chosen for this one… it was very symbolic in case you’re wondering, but I was still holding a person’s neck as she struggled). We were assorted into yet another group where we slowly eliminated each other by answering the questions “Who would you save, him or her? Yourself or him?” With no time to process that I may have just told a stranger that I didn’t value his/her life, we were handed buckets of dirt and moved into an assembly line to bury an actor who was trapped in a large glass cage. At this point, people began refusing to participate. Once everyone had stepped away, the ominous Danish guide said something that was probably very profound in Danish, guided us back to our shoes, and it was over. No applause or anything, just an invitation to leave at your own will.
This description doesn’t do justice to 75 minutes of being guided slowly through the darkness, feeling a bleak sort of wonder and growing hopelessness. Understanding Joseph Conrad’s story wasn’t important since the audience was living Marlow’s journey in the first person. Everyone entered by surprise into a world that accepted the worst parts of human nature and cooly made us face choices most of us never have to make. In my opinion, this was theater at its best, immersive and arresting. But all I wanted to do afterwards was curl up in bed and contemplate the meaning of life.
I am curious as to whether theatrical journeys like this one, with purposefully small audiences who are forced to interact, occur as often in the USA as they do in Denmark. I also wonder if there is a way to do something similar using music as a point of departure rather than literature. Music has a narrative too, but even if the audience doesn’t understand it, is there a way to cut the crap and immerse an audience into the raw themes and emotions? There is an entirely new vocabulary to explore when the arts do what they are supposed to do- move us in ways we never expected, or perhaps have always been waiting for.