The Scotsman Sessions #60: Mara Menzies

Welcome to The Scotsman Sessions. With the performing arts world shutting down for the foreseeable future, we are commissioning a series of short video performances from artists all around the country and releasing them on scotsman.com, with introductions from our critics. Here, Edinburgh-based theatre-maker and storyteller Mara Menzies performs an extract from her 2019 Fringe show Blood And Gold, inspired by the story of Somali student Axmed Sheikh, who, while studying at Edinburgh University in 1989, was stabbed to death in the Grassmarket in a notorious racially-motivated attack.

In this summer of 2020, the subject of Scotland’s role in the British Empire, and of the wealth brought to this country through Scottish connections with the horrific transatlantic slave trade, has suddenly reached the top of the news agenda, following the worldwide wave of Black Lives Matter protests.

For the Edinburgh-based theatre-maker and storyteller Mara Menzies, though, this subject is not new. Throughout her career, she has sought to create work that explores her own Kenyan and Scottish dual identity, and the wider relationship between Africa and Europe; in the last decade, she has made shows reflecting on the life of the Scottish explorer David Livingstone (I Knew A Man Called Livingstone, 2013), and has also explored the story of Angolan warrior queen Nzinga and her struggle against Portuguese colonialism (Nzinga, 2014), as well as using the power and magic of the African storytelling tradition to explore highly contemporary issues to do with truth, lies, and perception, in The Illusion Of Truth (2017). Menzies’ work has now been seen in a dozen countries across the world, including Jamaica, Singapore, Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana, Russia, and all parts of the UK, and - like the work of other Scottish-based artists of African heritage - is gradually beginning to win greater recognition, both at home and internationally.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Mara Menzies’s 2019 show Blood And Gold - written and performed by Menzies herself, directed by her sister Isla Menzies, and premiered at the Scottish Storytelling Centre during last year’s Edinburgh Fringe - is a powerful one-hour monologue which uses the rich, dream-like imagery of African legend to conjure up the perennial human struggle against The Shadow, a force of evil, spite, division and mischief that destroys joy and innocence, and drains the colour from the world.

Mara Menzies

Here, in the show’s final story, Menzies blends this powerful imagery into the narrative of a beloved young African man - “the young man with sparkling eyes” - and his journey to a new world, where he finds not the happiness and opportunity for which he hoped, but a terrible sudden death at the hands of a man possessed by The Shadow. It is the story of Somali student Axmed Sheikh, who, while studying at Edinburgh University, was stabbed to death in the Grassmarket in 1989 in a notorious racially-motivated attack, although no-one has ever been convicted of his murder. And in this brief sequence, Mara Menzies weaves all her magical narrative power around the outline of this bleak western news story, pouring a whole universe of colour and energy into her evocation of the spiritual, cultural, and historical meaning of Axmed Sheikh’s journey; and of the mighty ties that bind him to his mother and family in Somalia, continuing to live and vibrate even as his physical life ebbs away, in an Edinburgh telephone box.

The music used in this extract is Event Horizon, available at audionautix.com

A message from the Editor:

Thank you for reading this story on our website. While I have your attention, I also have an important request to make of you.

With the coronavirus lockdown having a major impact on many of our advertisers - and consequently the revenue we receive - we are more reliant than ever on you taking out a digital subscription.

Subscribe to scotsman.com and enjoy unlimited access to Scottish news and information online and on our app. With a digital subscription, you can read more than 5 articles, see fewer ads, enjoy faster load times, and get access to exclusive newsletters and content. Visit https://www.scotsman.com/subscriptions now to sign up.

Joy Yates

Editorial Director