Anansi the Spider
For his first in-house production since taking over as Artistic Director at the Unicorn, Justin Audibert has devised a colourful telling of traditional tales of Anansi the Spider. These stories, such a key feature of a Caribbean childhood, are also known through West Africa for they originated in Ghana.
Aimed at 3- to 7-year-olds and suitably lasting just under an hour without an interval, this production created by Audibert with composer Durmaney Kamara, movement director Lucy Cullingford and designer Sadeysa Greenaway-Bailey welcomes them into an atmospheric setting where they can sit on the floor up close to the action where a huge tree spreads its branches above them.
It is a magical setting that reminds you it is theatre and stirs imagination, for the tree trunk and branches are formed from wicker with swags of green-patterned fabric for the foliage; add Jai Morjaria’s dappled lighting and it really feels like a jungle.
Three storytellers dressed in colourful costumes inspired by Ghanaian tradition welcome the audience with drumming. They are Afia Abusham, Sapphire Joy and Juliet Okotie, all excellent actor-musicians. Their changing rhythms build expectation until there is a pause and Juliet Okotie, echoed by the others, announces “time for story” and it begins with “once upon a time… long ago when animals all walked on two legs and could speak to each other…”.
And so we are into the first tale about that clever spider, mischief-making Anansi, which happens when the Sky God noticed that people had got greedy and had started fighting so gave them the gift of Wisdom: a little bit of wisdom each—including a lucky few in the audience.
Sapphire Joy’s Anansi is greedy too and wants all the wisdom. He goes about collecting it, cajoling the audience to give their pieces to him, then puts them all in a pot and tries to hide it at the top of the huge thorn tree.
He’s thwarted by the intervention of a frightened little girl who has fled to the jungle to escape the fighting and eventually the world gets it back, carried on the wind to all of us. While you can’t help liking Anansi and all his antics, stories about him all seem to teach that’s not how you should behave.
In a second story, the world is suffering from famine, though some people have full store cupboards. Brother Snake (Juliet Okotie, shaking a rattle in one hand) is one of them. Anansi begs Snake to give him some and he gets some vegetables but on conditions that could be fatal. He then tricks other animals into being killed by Snake and becoming food for his own pot. Afia Abusham becomes a gullible goat and later a clever armadillo before Anansi is finally outwitted. This could be a bit scary but it is highly stylised and shouldn’t bring bad dreams.
The third story has Anansi invited to two parties on the same night. Greedy Anansi wants to eat his full at both of them and sends one son off to each, both trailing ropes tied to himself. As soon as food is served, they have to give the rope a tug. Ingenious perhaps, but it goes wrong.
This glimpse into the many stories about man / spider Anansi (which still go on being invented) may whet the appetite for more, and for more theatre too: it is a production that is totally engaging for both its young audience and their adult companions.
Reviewer: Howard Loxton