Caro Meets Children's Show Interview Theatre Interview

Elgiva Field: Zeraffa Giraffa

By | Published on Wednesday 20 September 2017

When I first heard about ‘Zeraffa Giraffa’, I immediately thought it sounded brilliant: a family show exploring some important and timely themes, inspired by a well loved book about the true historical story of a giraffe’s journey from Egypt to France. On until December, it can be seen in a choice of two different locations, because it’s a co-production of Clapham’s Omnibus Theatre, and the Little Angel Theatre in Islington.
To find out more about what to expect from the show, and how it all came together, I spoke to the director of the piece, Elgiva Field.

CM: First off, can you tell us about the story the show tells? It’s based on a true story, isn’t it?
EF: It is indeed a true story, about a giraffe that was given as a gift to King Charles X by the Pasha of Egypt in 1827. A small group, including a young boy called Atir, were tasked with looking after Zeraffa, the baby giraffe, from her capture. Together they made the 4000 mile journey: sailing down the Nile on a felucca, then across the Mediterranean Sea in a brigantine ship, and finally walking 550 miles from Marseilles to Paris.

En route through France Zeraffa caused such a stir that there were often vast crowds and sometimes riots in the cities she passed through – after all, she was the first live giraffe to be seen in the country. Once in Paris she inspired fashion, songs and food. She lived in a specially built Rotunda in Les Jardin des Plantes for 18 years, Atir always at her side.

CM: For those who know the book, is it a faithful adaptation?
EF: The picture book by Dianne Hofmeyr was the inspiration and starting point. The story and illustrations in the children’s book are multi-layered,and we explored the themes the book touches on whilst developing them with historical and cultural sources. Migration, immigration, exploration, types of bonds and friendships and a sense of belonging are all key elements to the story, and form the basis of the play. We have incorporated some of the minor characters in Zeraffa’s history and reimagined some contexts of her journey. We have also created a unique soundtrack which has been inspired by locations, cultures and historical periods-stemming from the story book.

CM: What style of performance can we expect from the show?
CF: It’s an ensemble piece with a unique aesthetic using multiple artistic languages to tell an epic story that takes place across land and sea. We work with objects, collage, projection, original music and song and a powerful script which is part prose, part verse.

The narrators of our tale are very present – part mischief mechanicals mixed with troubadour storytellers. I hope we’ve created a charming and whimsical show that balances comedy and pathos. It doesn’t shy away from the emotional punches in the story and allows children to engage with the immigrant experience on an individual level as well as engender a sense of adventure and care of the world around us.

CM: The play was been written by the award-winning poet and writer Sabrina Mahfouz. Can you tell us a bit about her? Has she been involved in creating the production?
EF: Omnibus Theatre already had a connection with Sabrina Mahfouz and she also knew the building in its previous life as a former library. The team thought she would be perfect to adapt the book as many of the themes the play explores are issues she was familiar with and has written about. She also grew up in both London and Cairo so was able to share multiple, unique perspectives. It’s been a collaborative process from the beginning, and Sabrina has helped inform the vision for the production and in capturing the mood and authenticity of the tale. Her text gives the show a distinct energy and dynamic – it was something very exciting to riff with and bounce off.

CM: Who else is involved in the creation of the show?
EF: It has been a close collaboration with all the creative team. I worked with Matthew Hutchinson on the puppetry – including our ‘star’, Zeraffa – and Ingrid Hu is the set and costume designer. All those elements are closely interlinked as we play with objects in space and storytelling – no one thing is what it seems. Candida Caldicott composed an evocative, fun and original musical score that gives a sense of the locations but also captures the playful mood. Jon McLeod built on the compositions to create a complex soundscape that shifts the gears of the storytelling and as lighting designer, Oscar Wyatt had to create a range of landscapes in multiple scales, transporting us from the savannah of Ethiopia to the bustle of Paris.

CM: How have you managed to evoke the character of a massive giraffe..?!?
EF: Early on we discussed the use of – and play with – scale and perspective. Life sized giraffes wouldn’t fit through the doors of the theatre… or the budget! Matt is also a very considerate maker and knew the objects had to be light in order for the performers to handle them nimbly and responsively. He did come up with an ingenious design for a life-sized version of a baby giraffe. He drew inspiration from Chinese paper lanterns and honeycombing to create aspects of her body – she captures your heart on her first appearance.

CM: What made you want to stage this particular story?
EF: Firstly, I was drawn by the historical aspect, it’s such an amazing untold story. Secondly, the powerful themes explored are so pertinent today, and this made it an interesting challenge and rather unique to explore in the setting of children’s theatre.

CM: What age group would you say the play is suitable for?
EF: The guideline is for ages 4 to 8 yrs. But we believe all children’s theatre is intergenerational, stories are there to be shared with all the family, and that’s how we approach making the work. The play tackles such powerful themes, is visually witty and innovative and has a great musical score, we feel it can be enjoyed by older children and their families/carers too. Babes in arms are certainly also welcome.

CM: How and why did the collaboration between the two theatres come about?
EF: Little Angel Theatre’s creative director Samantha Lane is on the Omnibus Theatre board of trustees so they were already familiar with each other’s work. With Little Angel being known as ‘the national home of puppetry’, when the idea was floated around at Omnibus Theatre, it made sense to draw on their relationship with Samantha and it was a perfect fit. Both companies also liked the idea of Zeraffa making another epic journey across North to South London!

‘Zeraffa Giraffa’ is a co-production of Omnibus Theatre and Little Angel Theatre. See this page here for performances at Little Angel Theatre from from 21 Sep-4 Nov, and this page here for performances at Omnibus Theatre from 25 Nov-17 Dec.