Mungo Park, the eighteenth-century Scottish explorer, was the first European to make it to Timbuktu. His journal was the inspiration for Mungo Park – Travels in the Interior of Africa, by Danish company Mungo Park Theatre and Scottish touring company Dogstar Theatre.
The company took their inspiration from Hollywood cinema, as they thought Park’s journal would make a good blockbuster film. The play is introduced with a monologue asking the audience to imagine a helicopter shot of the Scottish countryside, and at first the cinematic touches are amusing and seem to work. However, as the play progresses, it seems increasingly like two plays stuck in one body: a film-style drama about Park’s expeditions to find and follow the Niger River, and another owing more to panto and the Reduced Shakespeare Company than to Hollywood. Two of the three cast members are constantly switching wigs or shirts to portray a wide range of characters: Park’s wife Allison is portrayed by Kingsley Amadi in a blond wig, the African guide Isaako played by Anders Budde Christensen wears a football jersey. In contrast, Matthew Zajac, who plays only Mungo Park, is in period costume, and appears to belong to an entirely different production.
Since Mungo Park is very theatrical, it is questionable whether the cinematic elements add anything other than a joke or two. A spinning wheel in the centre of the stage is used by Zajac to walk on the spot for long journeys, a ladder forms the prow of a boat in which they sail down the Niger. Bright lights and smoke suggest the harsh conditions in the African interior, and maps of Africa are filled in with chalk. The piece is not, as they suggest, a cinematic experience, but a theatrical one, and might, if given a chance, “prove theatre mightier than the movies” (as it says in the programme) without mentioning cinema at all.
The comedic aspects are funny, but ultimately serve to weaken the potential impact of Park’s story. There is an interesting element of fearing otherness that might have been explored in the final stretch of the second journey, but, like all the other serious themes, it is passed over in favour of spectacle and visual puns involving a scandalous waste of brownies. It is an enjoyable if unprofound 80 minutes; and there is enough in the story that it could make a powerful play once it’s gotten over its identity crisis.