Edinburgh Fringe 2012
Welcome to the most intricate piece of storytelling this Fringe. Welcome to a show about a personal journey, a cross continental inter-dependency and about how one young man from Manchester picked up the white boy’s burdon and carried it from his teens into his early adulthood.
In the shadow of Edinburgh’s Scott Monument is a smaller but no less imposing memorial to the great Scottish explorer David Livingstone. Livingstone was the first in a long progress of heartfelt but hard-headed presbyterian missionaries who went to Africa to improve as well as explore. This year a very modern (and Catholic) missionary comes to the Fringe. Joe Douglas went on a gap year. Did he ever come back? Despite numerous warnings, not least from his ex-pat aunt, Joe found that he could not leave Uganda behind. The content of this show is profoundly thought-provoking, told by the man who lived it. The performance is well-paced and engaging.
Educating Ronnie is at heart a live introduction of pre-recorded material. The correspondence from Ronnie, the Uganda befriended by Douglas, is projected onto a chalkboard and narrated by the dulcet tones of Claude Mutuyimana, a pleasing counterweight to Douglas’ Mancunian brogue. The contents of Ronnie’s emails and txts are revealed in this way. The most effective aspect of the staging is the reserved sign hanging over the centre seat of the front row. This has been installed for the benefit of Douglas’ ex-pat aunt to whom much of the script is directed. An apostate has entered the confessional.
Douglas’ growing religious doubt is the other side of the story. Although it is never made explicit, the implication is that Aunt Douglas is a nun on a Ugandan mission. Ronnie’s correspondence is peppered with allusions to the almighty, the intervention of heaven and his faith in that nebulous force for good entirely absent from the brimstonier parts of the bible. As much as Educating is about a strange boy in a faraway land, it is also the story of Douglas losing the very convictions which spurred him to visit Africa before university. To what extent has Douglas used and prolonged his relationship with Ronnie as a way of convincing himself he is still a good person despite rejecting the church?
There are no glib or easy answers on offer. At first, what seems on offer is an overly worthy tale of a guy who did really good stuff on his gap yah. The show gradually morphs into a more worldly and universal tale of that mid-twenties awakening which has bring us to ourselves with a start. Educating Ronnie is an extraordinary piece of contemporary storytelling. It is also a very old school tale of missionary zeal. I never troubled to read Frantz Fanon but I thought I heard him muttering in the row behind.
I would like to see this show again in 10 years time. Perhaps Douglas will then be ready to talk more frankly about his own intellectual and spiritual journey.