Los Angeles Theater Interview: BRIAN T. FINNEY AND TIM ROBBINS on Heart of Darkness at Actors’ Gang

by Jason Rohrer on April 6, 2013

in Interviews,Theater-Los Angeles

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THE BLEEDING HEART OF DARKNESS

Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novel Heart of Darkness concerns an English ship captain’s journey to the Belgian Congo, and the revelatory effect of his encounter with what Europe has wrought there.  Specifically he is impressed by the fate of one ivory trader, Kurtz, who during his time in Africa has deteriorated from compassionate intellectual to murderous barbarian.  The book is a favorite of professors as it’s loaded with the symbolic language typical of Conrad, one of the molders of modern English prose style. Students love it too, because it’s short.

Heart of Darkness enjoyed almost unanimous critical praise through the mid-1970s, when Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe, who died this past March, began a lecture tour in which he denounced Joseph Conrad as “a thoroughgoing racist” and condemned the book’s inclusion in the Western Canon.  In the years since, more Jason Rohrer’s Stage and Cinema interview with Brian T. Finney and Tim Robbins – "Heart of Darkness" at Actors' Gang.post-colonial critics have questioned the moral values of a story that uses Belgian King Leopold II’s industrial genocide of perhaps ten million Congolese as a backdrop to an essentially European story.

So, in adapting Heart of Darkness for the Actors’ Gang stage, Brian T. Finney has taken on one of the most beloved and contentious books in academia.  Having seen the show in previews, I can say that he has done a remarkable job coercing a 90-minute solo show from a notoriously complex Victorian text.  An Ovation winner for 2001’s Underneath the Lintel, Finney acts all the parts in Heart of Darkness as well, from bluff sailor Charlie Marlow to the monstrous Kurtz to a Congolese dying of overwork.  Along with Actors’ Gang artistic director Tim Robbins, he has also braved the oily waters of theatrical politics.  But for both of them, the process begins and ends with the story.

Finney says that when he first read the novel about ten years ago, the end – when the narrator Marlow returns to Europe a changed man – intrigued him more than the book’s adventure elements.  “For me, the biggest moment is the scene after Marlow’s return from Africa to Brussels in which Marlow describes what we now know as PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder].  He says of the people in the street, ‘they trespassed on my thoughts.’  It’s such a remarkable feeling of disdain.”

Toward the end of the story, Marlow relates the final moments of Kurtz’s life to his bereaved fiancé, changing important facts partly to spare her feelings but for other reasons, too.  Finney says, “At last year’s workshop production [director Keythe Farley and I] invited the public, trying to figure out what the play was about for us.  Jason Rohrer’s Stage and Cinema interview with Brian T. Finney and Tim Robbins – "Heart of Darkness" at Actors' Gang.It really struck me that going back to the fiancé was the thing.  Marlow’s lie to his fiancée really means: ‘horror and darkness and pain exist in the world but it won’t flow through me.’ ”

About the process of adaptation, Finney says, “The first draft I did would have been four hours long.  I had to put the book away; every time I opened it, I would see something else I wanted to put in.  So my initial draft became my bible, but when I cut it and did readings, it was so hard to lose little things.  The big problem with Conrad – which is a blessing for him as a writer but challenging for me as a playwright – is that he formulates these great ideas but it takes a while to set them up.  I had to decide which rabbit trail to follow.  The poetry has to be kept; sometimes I marry different ends of sentences together to keep language but lose narrative threads that aren’t necessary to the story.  It’s about whether it works.”

One example of Finney’s thriftiness is his work on the Russian sailor Marlow meets in the Congo.  This marginal character serves multiple practical functions in the play, at one point helping the actor with a costume change that serves double duty as character development.  This moment speaks to the organic nature of this production, in which Finney is almost always alone onstage (two non-speaking actors appear, more or less as assistants to hand Finney props or to reposition the sail-like screens upon which video images are projected).

Given the vast scope of the novel’s most famous adaptation, the Francis Ford Coppola movie Apocalypse Now, one might wonder whether Finney thought about adapting the novel as a stage spectacle.  Instead, he says, the book’s first-person narration and its psychological elements put him in mind of an intimate Jason Rohrer’s Stage and Cinema interview with Brian T. Finney and Tim Robbins – "Heart of Darkness" at Actors' Gang.presentation.  “I originally conceived it as a solo show, and I had the idea of the projections and the sails, but there was no money.  Then Keythe and I said well, we could do this with a chair, a table and a steam trunk.”

Finney says he feels an obligation to the people of the Congo and denies that Conrad’s story is inherently racist, despite its frequent inclusion of the word “nigger,” an epithet notably absent from the current adaptation.  “Conrad did go up the Congo and he did see the Belgian exploitation, and he did come away with the sense very much present in the book, essentially: ‘this is fucked.’  Plus Conrad [born in Poland as Józef Korzeniowski] learned English on a sailing vessel, and sailors swear like sailors.  His character Marlow does react like a European to ‘the prehistoric earth,’ and he calls the Africans ‘inhuman,’ but what thrilled him was there being ‘a dim kinship’ there.  He has an empathy, a fascination, that ‘we’re the same.’ ”

He continues: “The Congo is still one of the most dangerous places in the world.  And it all goes back to King Leopold.  And it’s only gotten worse from there.  Somebody noticed that the boats going to Africa were loaded with soldiers, and the ones coming back were full of ivory; when King Leopold knew that people were getting hip to what the Belgians were doing there, the message changed.  It became not ‘we’re going in there for rubber and ivory’ but ‘we’re going to save their souls.’  Remember that at the time it was scientifically ‘proven’ that Africans were ‘below’ Europeans, were barely human.  Certainly looking back on that doesn’t excuse it, but that was the world Conrad was living in.  We still conjure this image of Africa as a place where ‘they can’t take care of themselves.’ ”

Finney concludes, “It wasn’t that long before Conrad was there that [explorer Henry] Stanley had gone in there to set up camps for Leopold.  The story that I’m telling is the beginning of the story of today.  There’s an organization called Friends of the Congo who have a great little film, Crisis in the Congo.  Its first line:  ‘The Jason Rohrer’s Stage and Cinema interview with Brian T. Finney and Tim Robbins – "Heart of Darkness" at Actors' Gang.Congo is a nightmare in heaven.’  Even now in the 21st century much of it’s untouched and beautiful but there’s this nightmare existing in it.”

A man used to controversy arising from the political content of his work, Finney’s producer Tim Robbins, says, “I don’t agree with the assertion that this is a racist piece.  It’s a piece about the capability of every man to descend to the heart of darkness.  The character Kurtz writes about how to exist there, and how to treat the people.  As much as it’s patronizing, it’s benevolent at its heart.  How can that man, who his girlfriend describes as the kindest man on earth, become a man who’s sticking heads on sticks?  How does he become the man who says, ‘Exterminate all the brutes?’  It illuminates a side of us that is capable of doing monstrous things.  How many Americans had relatives who slaughtered Indians?  It’s important for storytellers to take on huge moral dilemmas.”

As far as potential backlash from those who might agree with Chinua Achebe about this show’s source material, Robbins says, “That’s something that’s never really concerned me.  There are always going to be people on the far right and the far left who have opinions, and I respect their opinions.  But storytellers have to not be Jason Rohrer’s Stage and Cinema interview with Brian T. Finney and Tim Robbins – "Heart of Darkness" at Actors' Gang.concerned about that kind of thing.  I always think of Sam Fuller; when his Korean War movie Steel Helmet came out, he was attacked by the Daily Worker for making ‘a movie that could have been directed by Douglas MacArthur himself.’  And at the same time the American Legion called it a piece of communist propaganda.  Fuller was proud of that.  When I did Dead Man Walking, there were people who said this was a pro-death penalty film.  It’s people’s opinion.  I’m not saying they’re illegitimate, I’m saying I disagree.  It’s my right to tell the story without worrying about what every individual is going to think.”

Robbins says that the proper way to make a ‘message’ play is not to make it about the message.  “The best barometer is what feels true onstage.  When you’re talking about making a piece serve your own political agenda, it’s propaganda.  Whether it’s for a side you agree with or not, it’s still a lesser piece than it could be.  I don’t believe you can do propaganda and still find the inner humanity of the characters in the piece.  It’s been our experience that it should be treated as a story first, to give value to even the things we don’t agree with.  To humanize even the inhuman Jason Rohrer’s Stage and Cinema interview with Brian T. Finney and Tim Robbins – "Heart of Darkness" at Actors' Gang.elements in a character.  All of us are capable of what Kurtz is doing.  That’s the story.”

As to whether a show as easily transportable as this one had been developed specifically to fit into The Actors’ Gang’s touring repertoire, Robbins says, “We’d like to tour Heart of Darkness.  We’d like to tour a lot of things.  The last show I did with the Gang [2010’s Break the Whip] was 24 actors and three musicians.  I wanted to tour it and I wish we lived in a place where we could get state funding and tour with it, as they do in Europe.  One benefactor would do that for us.  We’re looking.  It’s been part of our mission at The Actors’ Gang from the very beginning to do shows that were relevant to the society we live in.  But our mission is first to entertain.  And I think we’ve been pretty good about staying true to that.  I’m not a fan of doing things with a social conscience that take advantage of the intelligence of the audience.  That’s why we have a root base in commedia dell’arte, which has a language everybody can understand.  As much as we want to bring socially relevant theater to the stage, we’re super focused on finding what’s entertaining about the piece – it could be funny, it could be moving, it could be a cautionary tale, as long as it moves the audience emotionally and viscerally.”

production photos by Jean-Louis Darville

Heart of Darkness
The Actors’ Gang in Culver City
opens April 6 and runs through May 16, 2013
for tickets, call (310) 838-4264 or visit http://www.theactorsgang.com

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