I Knew A Man Called Livingstone
3 stars ***
National Library Of Scotland (Venue 147)
THIS YEAR marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of David Livingstone, doctor, African explorer, and – for a few generations at least – a popular hero in Scotland. Mara Menzies’ new play celebrates Livingstone’s life in a play for two actors – plus voice-over – which describes the last phase of Livingstone’s life in Africa through the eyes of his two African servants, Abdullah Susi and James Chuma. These were the men who, following Livingstone’s death from fever, carried his body on an eight-month, 1500 mile journey to the sea at Dar-es-Salaam because they believed so strongly that he should be buried in the land of his ancestors; and who later visited Britain, and spoke at the Royal Society about his last journeys.
In Menzies’ 50-minute version of the tale, Susi and Chuma are played with great energy and charm by herself and her sister, Isla; it’s a fascinating story, told from an essential African perspective. As a piece of theatre, though, the show seems leaden at best, more concerned to impart information than to achieve any real dramatic momentum. In the scenes where he appears, Mara Menzies gives Livingstone an odd, drawling 21st century Glasgow accent that seems out of tune with the man and his time; and it’s only in the show’s brief, brilliant bursts of African music and song that it really flares into life.