Mischievous trickster with a story to tell | Michael Fenech

We speak to director Michael Fenech about Nanzi – a puppetry show culled from African folktales and dealing with the topic of migration, commissioned by Ideas Alive for this year’s edition of the Ziguzajg Festival

Naomi Said takes on the double role of Nanzi and Salima • Photo by Elisa von Brockdorff
Naomi Said takes on the double role of Nanzi and Salima • Photo by Elisa von Brockdorff

What were the initial ideas behind the project, and how did you set about developing them? 

Nanzi was originally written in 2007 for Kneeplays Youth Theatre, a youth theatre project that culminated in a Youth Theatre Festival in December 2008. The version we are presenting for Ziguzajg 2015 is a re-working of the initial concept, where the acting parts have been transcribed for puppets and most minor characters have been cleaned up.

Was the migration element always a part of the project? How do you aim to express this particular aspect of it? 

Yes, the context of migration serves as a backdrop to a play that is all about personal courage and dignity in the face of adversity. The text spoken by Salima, the little lonely girl on a ramshackle dinghy, are actual quotes from interviews of survivors of the perilous journeys undertaken by people desperate to escape from terrible situations.

Salima, (played by Naomi Said) is lonely, scared, lost and without any hope, but the same actor also plays Nanzi, a lively spider whose wit and humour are more potent weapons than the strength and reputation of the kings of the jungle. Theatre is an excellent place to practice empathy, and that is why Salima/Nanzi project complex characters.

What kind of structure does the story take? Was it inspired by particular folk tales? And what was the process of adapting them for the stage like? 

Nanzi is based on Ashanti folk tales from what would be the equivalent of modern day Ghana. These ancient tales migrated, through slavery, to the Caribbean region where they are also important aspects of local folklore.

The structure is two-fold:  Salima is on a boat in the middle of a dark sea, and remembers the folk tales her mother used to tell her to escape from her brutal reality to go to a happy place where she (as the spider Nanzi) is in control of her life.  The scenes on the boat are played realistically, while the tales are played for the fantasy element.

Why did you opt for puppetry as your format of choice? 

Puppetry is an eminently suitable medium to deal with the humanoid characters in these folk tales. The animals of the jungle clearly reflect human foibles, just as in Aesop’s fables. Tiger is vain; Snake is self-important; Lion is not very intelligent and Mouse is anxious and cowardly. Nanzi is the mischievous hero of the tales, with a sharp tongue and sharper mind, surviving and putting one over the creatures who are bigger and more powerful than her.

In the hands of trained puppeteers like Sean Briffa and Chantelle Micallef Grimaud the puppets take a life of their own. The puppets are designed by Sean Briffa and myself, and the play is directed by Franco Rizzo.

What do you hope kids will get out of the show?

I think theatre is first and foremost about entertainment: I hope anyone who sees Nanzi has a good laugh! Then I hope they get Nanzi’s attitude: irreverent and anarchic, challenging her ‘superiors’ and knocking them down from their high chairs! These folk tales also carry various layers of meaning: how fear and the unknown can be conquered by an inner strength and self-belief. And I also hope they enjoy the exquisitely designed puppets.

Nanzi will be staged on November 19, 21 (17:00) and 22 (10:00 and 17:00) at St James Cavalier, Valletta. For more information log on to: http://www.ziguzajg.org/