“… an invitation to taste the popcorn, then it’s serried lights and blinding action”
There is a Mungo Park Road in Gravesend, Kent, and sheltered housing at Mungo Park Court in Selkirk which seems all a bit sedentary when it comes to the tremendous life of Mungo P himself. Born in 1771, near Selkirk right enough, he ventured out down the Niger River and was the first European to reach Timbuktu. Of course, he did not have a passport so that nice phrasing, used in this show, about his Majesty ‘requests and requires [that] the bearer pass freely without let or hindrance’ did not apply. Instead his heroic travels are the stuff of bedtime stories, ‘To Selkirk … and beyond!’ if you will, which is where Mungo Park Theatre (Copenhagen) and Dogstar Theatre (Inverness) come flying in.
Writer and director Martin Lyngbo wants Hollywood-on-stage for the ‘inner eye of everyone in the audience’. So we get an invitation to taste the popcorn, then it’s serried lights and blinding action. We move swiftly from the Highlands, to London, and – via the two journeys of 1796 and 1805 – to central West Africa, on foot and in a canoe.
Travel at the wrong time and it’s very hot and wet and deadly out there. The African interior was a huge gap surrounded by a coastline, for its ‘heart lies in darkness’ and between August and October forty-one out of the forty-five or so Brits on the second expedition died of fever. How Parks survived for as long as he did is an open question but – to judge by this play – it was a combination of physical toughness, determination (to see home and family again), good sense and good luck. Africa for him is ‘a fragile network’ of peoples and customs and you got nowhere without respecting that.
Mungo Park goes back to 2006. That first Danish production was rehearsed during the crisis that surrounded publication in a newspaper of the Muhammad cartoons. This English language version, by Jonathan Sydenham, still looks as if it is significantly influenced by that controversy. Clever caricature asks questions of how individuals are represented and received by ‘others’, culturally akin or not. African kings Desse and Ali play ‘up’ their obvious differences in sing-song pidgin speech; their messengers play their crafty roles as would flunkies of a European court but with outlandish accents. Sir Joseph Banks, notable patron of the natural sciences, is as interested in gold as he is in plants. Lieutenant John Martyn, in command of Parks’ escort, is more blood thirsty racist than an officer and a gentleman. Desperate and dangerous confusion results from misunderstanding and prejudice.
Matthew Zajac is impressive as the courageous and virtuous Mungo, whose story we follow at every turn, literally so as he fights his good fight on a turntable. Anders Budde Christensen is all exaggerated gesture and of wily tongue as emissary and as the not-so-enlightened James Rennell, map-maker, who would be master of all he surveys. Kingsley Amadi is black African potentate and crazy (white) army officer. It is so confidently performed that the zany is never risible, the indomitable never preposterous.
The rapid screenplay, to go with the filmic idea, produces strong exposition – particularly when its opening is chalked-up on the blackboard rather like title cards to a silent movie of colonial history in the making – and a dynamic narrative. No visual ‘shots’ are projected so there’s a spontaneous, on-the-spot quality to the whole piece. For the most part it is tightly focused upon Parks himself and when it isn’t there is some loss in terms of its depth of field. Performers running up and down the central aisle in a bright light did not look right.
Sturdy Mungo always has a satchel for his notebook and his Travels were published in 1799 but if you want a stirring measure of the man and of his life you won’t do better than this motion picture of a play.
Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 24 August)
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