Feature: Anansi – An African Fairy Tale in London

Photo: Donald Cooper

We do not really mean, we do not really mean that what we are about to say is true. A story, a story: let it come let it go…

This Christmas the Southwark Playhouse presents a very different take on the seasonal family show. Anansi, a tale which holds its roots in West African and Caribbean folklore, centres around the adventures of a plucky spider who takes on Nyame the Sky God in order to return stories to the people of earth. Steeped in the history of the oral tradition, Anansi is a much loved fairytale character whose amusing and colourful tales have been carried across the world for hundreds of years.

Meeting with writer and director Lisa Cagnacci along with two members of the Anansi cast in the Playhouse’s famous underground bar, huddled against the cold in a snow drenched jacket, I admit that I couldn’t have felt further from the warm forests of Ghana. I ask Lisa why she chose to write this particular play for the theatre’s Christmas season, rather than going down the more traditional Pantomime route. “After the company’s success with last year’s show, A Christmas Carol,” she explains, “I knew that I wanted to do something a little bit different. The Southwark Playhouse has always prioritised supporting and involving the local community, and many of the people who live around us are of African and Caribbean descent. So I began research into the stories that surround that heritage, and it didn’t take long before I was hooked!”

Anansi herself, though traditionally a male spider, is played in this production by the willowy figure of Anniwaa Buachie. This was a very deliberate move on Cagnacci’s part, as her theatre company, Wild Shrews, is concerned with promoting a more female theatre. I ask Anniwaa about the role, and what it means to play such a famous mythical creature. “The part really appealed to me” she explains “because these are the stories that I grew up on. However, the wonderful thing about Anansi is that she is by no means exclusive. Her stories appeal to people of all ages and nationalities; anyone who’s interested in magic and fairytales.” Lisa is also quick to point out that the production was written with a local audience in mind; “there’s a lot of London in there too” she says with a smile.

So how do you play a spider? Anniwaa looks thoughtful; “that was actually one of the hardest things to perfect during rehearsals. Because Anansi isn’t just a spider, she is a person too. I worked closely with our choreographer, Tamsin Fessey, learning how Anansi’s legs should move, how she would climb”.

“I agree” says Msimisi Affolderbach-Dlamini, who plays the part of the Rock Python, “getting to know our animals was challenging, because it is important to show that they have distinct personalities. There are two snakes in this play but they are almost opposite in character, and for this reason they move in very different ways. You can’t tar all snakes with the same brush because not all of us are poisonous…”

As I make my way into the theatre for the evening’s production, I instantly begin to feel warmer. This could be because the heating has been turned up for the audience, but I like to think that the colourful set and African music played its part in thawing me out. “I hope you enjoy the show” says Lisa, “in many ways it’s quite raw, but that rawness lends it a spontaneity and an energy.”

Having seen the show I can report that Anansi is a riot! Cagnacci’s writing fuses modern humour with traditional African storytelling. Dancing, singing and sparring off the audience, the talented cast brings to life an array of vibrant characters, which are sure to entertain children and adults alike. I found it fascinating to be introduced to a folk story that I had previously known very little about. Though steeped in Afro-Caribbean culture, Anansi bears the recognisable traits of children’s fables across the world. It is a quirky story, with a universal message. If you are looking to beat the winter blues this Christmas, look no further than the Southwark Playhouse.

Anansi: An African Fairy Tale is at the Southwark Playhouse until January 8th.