Please don’t ask me what the plot is for The Ridiculous Darkness as it’s impossible for me to tell you. Wolfram Lotz’ absurdist radio play is a take on Josef Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. It follows two separate stories, Ultimo’s, who has a degree in piracy and is confessing to us in a courtroom, and Pellner and Dorsch’s, who travel up the Hindu Kush to find Lieutenant Colonel Duetinger. What follows is several different storylines and absurdist madness, and I must confess that while I didn’t manage to follow it all, I absolutely loved it.
Director Anthony Simpson-Pike creates a world in which we are completely lost. Just like in Conrad’s Congo, we take on a journey where we are met with danger and unexpected encounters. Most noises are created in a booth by Rochelle Rose, bringing the atmosphere of the journey to the space. I find this concept of foley work an interesting choice for the piece, considering it was originally a radio play. But there isn’t much variety in the sounds that were created, and the play also has an elaborate sound design by Max Pappenheim. I wish they had either committed to the booth and made their entire soundscape in there, or scrapped the idea altogether.
Rosie Elnile’s set is bizarre and fun – the unnatural green carpeting transports us to a very odd jungle. Aided by Josh Pharro’s lighting and video design, the whole atmosphere feels fresh and camp, and almost makes me feel like I’m watching live art or cabaret instead of theatre. One of the most striking and successful sequences take place in a complete and unusually lengthy blackout, making us uneasy and anticipating the ‘horror’ at the heart of the darkness. What is revealed instead is a great amount of black cassette tapes, tangled on the steps and glistening in the purple UV lighting. It’s beautiful and striking.
The cast is energetic and has great chemistry. Rose delivers her opening monologue with passion and a compelling inner rhythm. Seraphina Beh and Travis Alabanza work great as the duo looking for Deutinger and Shannon Hayes shines in each of the parts she embodies; she is different in every role with conviction and great stage presence.
But what is really at the heart of Simpson-Pike’s production is representation. In a ‘fake interval’, Rose gives the letters of the playwright to a ‘white male’ audience member, who reads out Lotz’s contemplations. He realizes his play has no speaking roles for women. And here we are, four black femme-identifying performers all playing white roles at some point of the show. It is a well-articulated point, and something that is tied to the play’s source material; in Conrad’s novel the Congo and its habitants are merely a backdrop for the western protagonist and his narrative. In this production, we get a moment with the actors who shed their roles and talk about the long history of (mis)representation, and the line “I was once played by Scarlett Johansson” lands perfectly with the audience. Still, I wonder if this moment of shattering the illusion and stepping out of the play is really necessary; the production communicates this sentiment confidently and clearly throughout, and this epilogue feels a little like the message is spelled out rather overtly, and maybe even unnecessarily.
Overall, The Ridiculous Darkness is both ridiculous and dark. It is a brave and playful piece of direction of Simpson-Pike, the kind of production the theatre scene really does need.
The Ridiculous Darkness is playing at the Gate Theatre until 23 March 2018. For more information and tickets, see the Gate Theatre website.