Zeraffa Giraffa: Exploring immigration and prejudice with puppets

Zeraffa Giraffa is the story of a young giraffe sent as a gift from the Pasha of Egypt to the King of France.

This adaptation of Dianne Hofmeyr’s children’s book, told using hand-crafted puppets and an original musical score, sees Zeraffa, accompanied by a boy called Atir, travel down the Nile past the wonders of an ancient civilisation to a new world where no one has seen a giraffe before.  

Running at Clapham’s Omnibus Theatre until 17th December, Zeraffa Giraffa is a tale of what it is like to be different. Lambeth Life spoke to director Elgiva Field and writer Sabrina Mahfouz on the launch of their new spectacle…

Tell us about the story the show tells?

Elgiva Field: It is 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. They made the 4,000 mile journey; sailing down the Nile on a felucca, then across the Mediterranean in a brigantine ship, and finally walking 550 miles from Marseilles to Paris. En route in France Zeraffa caused such a stir there were often vast crowds and sometimes riots in the cities she passed through. 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.

Tell us about the book the play was adapted from?

Elgiva Field: We explored the themes Dianne Hofmeyr’s 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.


How optimistic are you that art can make people more welcoming of immigrants and refugees?

Sabrina Mahfouz: I think if children are old enough to hear and repeat what is said around them, they’re old enough to see issues such as sexism, racism, homophobia and all other types of prejudices be explored theatrically, even if in a child-appropriate way. It is never too early to get a

child interested in questioning the apparent norms of our society and to become strong in their own opinion.

In terms of optimism, of course I don’t think art often changes mindsets in isolation, but as part of ongoing activism and progressive policy campaigning, then definitely.

What style of performance can we expect from the show?

Elgiva Field: 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 Sabrina’s powerful script which is part prose, part verse.

I hope we’ve created a charming and whimsical show that balances comedy and pathos.

Zeraffa, the giraffe is the ‘star’ of the show. How is she represented on stage?

Elgiva Field: 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 Hutchinson, our director of puppetry, 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.

Sabrina, how important has the Southbank Centre been in your life? Do you support Lambeth’s bid to become Borough of Culture in 2019 or 2020?

Sabrina Mahfouz: Southbank Centre has been absolutely integral and essential to my artistic career. It was the place I saw young people reading out their own creative writing in 2009 and made me think I want to do that. And since then I’ve worked there on things from Women of the World Festival to performing in front of 3,000 people at a night of music in celebration of Joni Mitchell. I’d definitely support Lambeth’s bid, it is the borough of London I love the most.

Photographer: Ellie Kurttz

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