Review – I Knew A Man Called Livingstone

Jun 17 2013 | By More

✭✭✭✩✩  Gets to the heart

Isla Menzies (Susi) and Mara Menzies (Chuma) in Toto Tales I Knew a Man Called Livingstone. Photo © Gavin Dougan

Isla Menzies (Susi) and Mara Menzies (Chuma) in Toto Tales I Knew a Man Called Livingstone. Photo © Gavin Dougan

National Library of Scotland
Fri 14 June, Wed 7 – Wed 21 August
Review by Thom Dibdin

There’s an intriguing role reversal in Toto Tales’ excursion into the life of Scottish explorer David Livingstone, at the National Library of Scotland as part of the Livingstone bicentennial exhibition and returning for a two week run during the fringe.

Mara Menzies’s simple twist is to look at the life of the Victorian anti-slaver from the perspective of the Africans who knew him and worked for him during his lifetime on the continent.

And in so doing, she provides a strangely innovative – and dispassionate – examination of Victorian patriarchy; a seeing of our history as others saw it, not our own historians.

Menzies and her sister Isla play Livingstone’s loyal servants Chuma and Susi. They accompanied him on expeditions for many years and were with him when he died. It was their own epic journey, to take his embalmed body 1,500 miles to the ship that would bring him back to his homeland, that caught the imagination of Victorian society and helped create Livingstone’s fame.

This is strongly involving theatre, and the NLS’s lecture room setting seems entirely appropriate. Mara and Isla have an easy style as they create the two servants – come to Scotland themselves to give their reminiscences of the great man to the worthies of his birthplace in Blantyre.

It’s storytelling theatre which, with a few props, the occasional drum and some changes of costume, takes a handful of the well-known moments of Livingstone’s life and reinterprets them in ways that go a little deeper than the gung-ho yarns.

Here he is fighting a lion, becoming the first European to see “the Smoke that Thunders” which he named the Victoria Falls, witnessing a slave trader’s massacre and debating the finer points of  Christianity over rain-making. But all of these are revealed from the point of view of his equals, welcoming him into an existing society in which he has become well-loved and respected.

The Livingstone remembered is not a typical Victorian – or indeed British – explorer. He understands the slave trade by its similarity to the Highland Clearances, empathising with its victims. And he is remembered for his understanding of those he travels amongst – accepting gifts as well as bringing them.

Mara, who plays Livingstone in the pair’s reminiscences, still has some way to go to perfect her accent for him. But Isla’s creation of the chiefs who he knew and befriended him – and particularly the haughty amazon who led him to the Victoria Falls – is smooth and brings an easy understanding to the stories.

A thoroughly entertaining hour, which brings a subtly different vision of Livinsgtone to life – and his times into a new focus.

Preview run ended.

Fringe run: 7-21 August
National Library of Scotland (venue 147), George IV Bridge, 16.00 (1 hour).
Tickets from:
Toto Tales website:


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