Travelling to Africa in 1795, Scottish doctor and Enlightenment figure Mungo Park became the first European to reach the central portion of the Niger and determine in which direction it flowed. He was also the first to reach the legendary trading city of Timbuktu. According to the Scottish-Danish team behind this production, Park’s account of his travels reads like a Hollywood blockbuster – so they set out to build an epic theatrical experience out of it. And within the confines of a Fringe theatre, boy, do they succeed.
Park leads his first expedition into Africa following four previous failed attempts to chart the Niger. He encounters both hostility and friendship, being both held captive and nursed back to health by different people he meets. He builds friendships, and writes that Africans are human beings – a literal statement which seems almost ludicrous now, but was significant then, as the history of colonialization in Africa sadly shows. Park discovers the Niger but turns back before Timbuktu, judging that the risk of losing his notes is too great.
Returning to the UK a hero, Park goes back into medical practice. But a few years later, hearing of a plan to send a force of 1200 soldiers to Africa, he fears that “a trigger-happy psychopath” will ruin all he has worked for. So he returns himself with a much smaller force of only 40 men – but even then, it proves hard to keep their aggression in check.
The techniques used to present this as a “blockbuster” are great fun, but also very effective. The actors describe long tracking shots and montage sequences, in much the same manner as audio description for the visually impaired – but with a sense of humour. A turntable in the centre of the stage works to show tramping through Africa; smoke machines and a powerful fan give the effect of being washed down the river; and our last image of Mungo Park is really quite spectacular.
By then, the disaster has played out. A wonderful tragi-comic scene shows how an inability to communicate with welcoming officials in Timbuktu leads to mistrust and violence. Then, Park’s determination to make it to the mouth of the Niger at all costs leads to mounting violence, as his men easily outgun the Africans they encounter.
Matthew Zajac is an excellent Mungo Park; resembling a more muscular Peter Capaldi, he captures just the right combination of intrepid explorer and moral steadfastness. Having established his character, as the play progresses and things break down for Mungo Park, his tragedy is all the more moving.
The other two members of the cast are Kingsley Amadi, who is black, and Anders Budde Christensen, who is white. Rather wonderfully though, they are cast to type rather than to race; for example, the more physically imposing Amadi plays both African kings a European soldier. In this way, the play achieves with race something similar to what Shakespeare’s Rosalind achieves with gender. We have a black man playing a white man roundly abusing the “brownies” (as he calls them); just as it does in As You Like It, the incongruity plays with our perceptions, here delivering effective mockery of racist attitudes.
As a play it really has it all: a great true story, a tragic hero, and challenging themes as cultures meet. Better still, it’s carried off with panache and superb theatricality. Get to Summerhall!