Sabrina Mahfouz, celebrated playwright and spoken word poet, turns her hand to children’s theatre with Zeraffa Giraffa. Daniel Perks catches up with her to talk about this astonishing real story of a giraffe transported from Egypt to Paris:

The unlikely friendship between a boy called Atif and a giraffe called Zeraffa cleverly presents topics of identity, migration and belonging in a fun-filled theatre production by Sabrina Mahfouz. Based on the book by award-winning children’s author Dianne Hofmeyr, Sabrina has adapted Zeraffa Giraffa with the help of Omnibus Theatre and Little Angel Theatre, using original compositions by Candida Caldicot and hand-made puppetry to add colour and engage the younger audience.

What’s more inspirational is that both the theatre play and the original children’s book are based on a true story of a giraffe that was transported 2,000 miles down the Nile, across the Mediterranean Sea and 550 miles from Marseilles to Paris in 1827. The journey took two and half years, all to appease French king Charles X of Egyptian Pasha Muhammad Ali’s friendly intentions towards France, despite the Pasha’s aggressive expansion and ongoing invasion of Cyprus and Greece.

I caught up with writer Sabrina Mahfouz to chat about Zeraffa Giraffa, her journey into children’s theatre, a story from her heritage and the joys of writing for children:

Sabrina Mafhouz

How are you feeling about your first children’s theatre production, Zeraffa Giraffa?

I’ve got a two-year old so I’ve recently been looking at a lot of children’s theatre. It was nicely timed that this project came along, I was already admiring the structures in the storytelling and the character development that goes throughout them.

Some shows are so bizarre that you have no idea how they came up with them, but those are the ones kids love the most; others are really sophisticated in terms of how to keep someone so young engaged for a period of time. It’s a really exciting form – you have to question things more, you can’t just go with your instinct or with what feels right.

Does this actually make sense and fit where it needs to fit, in order to keep the kids interested enough to keep up with the storyline?

 

Children’s theatre and children’s TV have changed so much from when we were young. Do you have to question yourself more when writing for children?

I did, but that may be because children’s work is a new territory for me. Asking these questions is one of the good things about doing all of this though. For Zeraffa Giraffa, if I was writing an adult piece looking at migration and the exploitation of people and animals, I would probably jump right into it.

With children, it’s more sophisticated – you have to create a framework where those issues are still looked at responsibly and thoroughly, but within a more comfortable situation. I often go straight in and make people uncomfortable, which makes them engage with the topic at hand. It’s different with children’s theatre – they’ll just leave!

It’s all about finding different ways to put a strong message within the framework of the story, the dialogue and the characters.

Everything becomes loaded with more building blocks that go into a children’s theatre production.

What is it about the story of Zeraffa Giraffa in particular that caught your attention?

With my last production, Offside, you hear about a true, historical story and look more into the background, realising the huge political implications that this one specific tale was taking place among. It’s the same here – colonialism, slavery and war, all as a backdrop.

Plus, who doesn’t love giraffes? Trying to figure out how to put that on stage was so cool, it was quite a big factor! Having been to Little Angel Theatre and seen some of the shows there before, I knew that I loved the puppetry element of what they do.

It’s also quite rare to have a children’s story that goes through Egypt, which is where my dad is from and where I lived as a kid – having the opportunity to present a version of Egypt to a London audience was an exciting prospect. With so many elements, it seemed like the perfect production for me to do as an introduction to kid’s shows.

The Nubian Giraffe by Jacques-Laurent Agasse

Did you approach the writing differently, knowing that the story already existed in some form?

I’m working on an opera for adults, which is an adaptation of Nawal El Saadawi’s novel, ‘Women Of Point Zero’. It’s quite a similar process to Zeraffa Giraffa because you have this amazing gift, a ready-made structure with all the plot points, in the media it’s written in. But there’s no way you can transcribe that straight to the stage.

We chose the elements of the story in both of these projects that seemed to be absolutely essential. Then, for this production, it was about adding extra elements – what else can we learn about Atir? He has a fascinating backstory, so how do we get more of that in and show the difficulty of navigating such a complex adult world as a child that has been given that responsibility? The friendship that grows begin him and Zeraffa is an interesting development too.

It’s fascinating to understand the stories behind each aspect that you see in the show.

But the amazing thing about doing children’s theatre is thinking about what would be really fun on stage – there has to be fun incorporated into the story! Things like making more of the journey down the Nile, the interaction with the Sphinx or the tiger fish that live in the water are all little adventures that we extended.

We also researched the full story behind Dianne Hofmeyr‘s book, which could easily be an adult play or film in itself. The Pasha of Egypt was an Armenian mercenary who rose up the ranks through the army and the Egyptian army of the time was full of Sudanese slaves that were invading Greece. The whole reason that Zeraffa is going to France is so that the French king doesn’t get angry at the Pasha for invading Europe.

Being Egyptian I found it even more fascinating as it’s an element of the history that I didn’t know about. The Pasha is often hailed as civilising Cairo, but through Zeraffa I learnt that he was only able to do that by facilitating a huge slave trade between Sudan and the rest of the world, primarily North Africa and Southern Mediterranean.

Muhammad Ali Pasha, first Khidive of Egypt, by Louis Charles Auguste Couder

How important are Candida Caldicot’s original compositions in telling the story?

It’s essential for young audiences to engage all parts of their mind and have something to get involved in – the music provides something memorable. Music generally engages your emotions in a very different way. One of the performers is a multi-instrumentalist too, playing loads on stage in various characters.

There’s a lot of background music in Zeraffa Giraffa that adds to the idea of where we are – we’re crossing such a huge expanse of the world, so the music changes to reflect that as well.

It’s essential for young audiences to engage all parts of their mind and have something to get involved in

Where do you draw inspiration from to create such powerful work?

Before I had kids, it was from everything and anywhere – conversations that I overhead, things I would read about in the news, questions from friends. The everyday inspiration really.

Post child, it’s generally more strategic – you have a job and you have to do it, so the time for walking around and finding inspiration isn’t as available. Now it focusses on the subject matter and what I find interesting about that. It’s very different to self-initiated projects.

Jogging by Hanane Hajj Ali at Summerhall, Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2017

What have you seen recently that sticks out in your mind?

I saw lots at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe – I saw Jogging by Hanane Al-Haj, as part of the Arab Arts Focus at Summerhall. It was a solo show of a Lebanese woman in her fifties talking about life, in Arabic with English surtitles. It bowled me over – hearing another language on stage was so refreshing, seeing how those stories translated.

I loved Box Clever too, there was a feeling that the writer really needed to tell this story and have a voice for the sort of people that aren’t often involved in theatre anymore. Hearing characters on stage that I could see from my life, knowing the importance of what she was saying, was fantastic.

 

Zeraffa Giraffa plays Little Angel Theatre, London from 21 September – 4 November 2017, then plays Omnibus Theatre, London from 25 November – 17 December 2017.

To read more, follow the theatres on Twitter or visit their websites:

Little Angel Theatre (@LittleATheatre) – littleangeltheatre.com

Omnibus Theatre (@Omnibus_Theatre) – omnibus-clapham.org