There’s no such thing as a gruffalo — a monster with orange eyes, a black tongue and purple spikes all over his back. Or is there?
Since its publication almost 20 years ago, Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler’s bestselling UK children’s book, “The Gruffalo,” has sold over 13 million copies worldwide.
The book, a rhyming tale about a plucky, quick-thinking mouse who fends off woodland predators by regaling them with stories about a terrifying monster called a gruffalo, has been translated into over 50 languages and adapted into a hugely successful musical stage show by the UK children’s theater company Tall Stories.
Over the last 18 years, it has toured Europe, North America, Asia and Australia, including runs in London’s West End, on Broadway and at Sydney Opera House. There have been co-productions in Spanish, German, Xhosa, and now an Arabic performance in Israel.
This particular version, “Al Gharfoul,” (“The Gruffalo” in Arabic), is the product of a first-time collaboration between the Orna Porat Theater for Children and Youth in Tel Aviv and Elmina, a multicultural theater for children and youth based in Jaffa. Its small cast stars rock artist Bassam Beroumi, Palestinian rapper and former TV producer Safaa Hathot, and Firas Nassar, who shot to fame earlier this year for his lead role in the second season of the TV series “Fauda.”
The show opens on May 5 with two performances at the cultural center in Nazareth as part of the Mahrajani Festival. The annual, non-profit Arab multidisciplinary children’s arts festival brings together families from different socioeconomic backgrounds. It will then tour Arab schools and community centers across the country.
The idea came about a few years ago after the Orna Porat Theater approached Tall Stories with an eye towards doing a Hebrew speaking production, Tall Stories co-founder Olivia Jacobs explains over the phone.
“We’re very keen that if we’re taking our theater to places that have more than one national language, that we try to reach as many and as diverse an audience as possible. Our gut instinct was that if we’re to do it in Israel, we really, really would like to do it in at least two languages,” Jacobs says.
The response took Orna Porat by surprise, Jacobs says, but eventually the company decided it was a good idea and agreed to try the show in both Hebrew and Arabic. The Hebrew version, “Trofoti,” had its first, sell-out run at the Tel Aviv Museum in March 2017.
But the Arabic production was a very long time coming, explains Rebecca Wolman, who has directed both language versions of the show for Orna Porat. Acquiring the rights to the book and the play — including the songs within the play — as well as the rights to the translations of both the story and the stage version has been time consuming and complex.
Even getting hold of a book copy in Arabic was not straightforward, she says.
“It came via London, via Kuwait, [where it is published]. But the Arabic that it’s written in is literary Arabic, so we then had to get the translation of the script converted into street Palestinian Arabic,” says Wolman.
And any staging changes had to be agreed upon by Tall Stories in the UK, Wolman says.
Wolman and Jacobs had worked together 20 years ago in London, and when Jacobs was contacted by the Orna Porat theater, she made it a condition that Wolman direct both productions.
“To have someone I know, trust and respect — and a Hebrew speaker — who lives five minutes from Orna Porat, has really been absolutely invaluable,” Jacobs says.
However, it became apparent that the project needed a partner with specific knowledge and experience of Arabic theater and the Arab-Israeli community.
“We were finding it hard to find the right actors [to audition] and market to an audience that we didn’t know anything about, or at least Orna Porat hadn’t worked with so much before,” explains Jacobs.
Following discussions with Elmina about casting, it was obvious that the theater was a logical choice. Jacobs was thrilled when the company, led by artistic director and well-known Arab-Israeli actor Norman Issa, and his wife, co-founder and CEO Gidona Raz, decided to come on board.
According to Issa, Arab children know the story of Al Gharfoul and, regardless of its original English sensibilities, “If it’s a good story, why don’t we do it?”
Elmina’s aim is to inspire, bridge and raise awareness of the importance of shared existence and the opportunity to enjoy different cultures through theater.
“Our theater’s agenda is very clear: to exist [together]. Not co-exist. So we put children together — Arabs and Jews — then we choose the material that can be in Arabic or in Hebrew, multilingual or without words,” Issa explains.
They are the only theater in Israel that works in this way, he says. “We’re a very, very small theater but our reach is big.”
They were able to bring in brilliant actors, says Wolman, and will get the show out and sold in the Arab community. “There’s no better partner.”
Wolman sits down to speak in a portside restaurant just a minute’s walk from Elmina, after a morning rehearsal with a new set that just arrived from the UK. Over mezze, she explains that there had been issues regarding the set, which had become politicized.
Orna Porat had bought Tall Stories’ West End size set for both productions, but it was obvious that it was impractical for the Arabic show and its venues, Wolman says.
Many Arab villages do not have theater stages, Issa later explains.
“The municipality doesn’t build them. [It] doesn’t really care about theater,” he says.
Instead, Elmina uses sports halls or school classrooms, and in the cities, they perform in community centers.
Issa is unequivocal about the lack of funding. “We need the government to support theater in the Arab community,” he says.
Wolman says Elmina pointed out to Orna Porat that the set would not fit on their truck.
“They said that Arab schools do not have stages and the theater only has one technician to put the set up and take it down — not a whole team of people. They wanted a smaller, more practical set that could easily travel out to schools and communities,” says Wolman.
But London resisted the request, Wolman continues, because they felt they were then coming up with two levels of show: “a big, Jewish fancy set and a smaller Arabic one.” Eventually, Tall Stories consented.
“We wanted to reach both audiences with the same standard of show,” says Jacobs. “We were very concerned that by being asked to make a smaller set, we were producing a much simpler show. It felt totally wrong.”
Tall Stories realized that they needed to adapt their thinking and expectations.
“Even though I went in with, ‘I’m not making a set that’s not the same,’ I’ve learned a lot,” Jacobs admits.
“They know what they’re doing. We had to come to terms with the fact that if we want to reach audiences with a really good show, whether the show has got trees that are this tall or that tall is not important. The important thing is that we get the show into as many venues, and to as many audiences, as possible,” Jacobs says.
From a brief observation of a rehearsal, it is difficult not to be captivated by the show’s engaging, energetic storytelling that oozes charm and humor, and is packed full of catchy tunes.
There are culturally specific references in the script. In particular, when it comes to the animal characters, adaptations are made depending on the audience. In Britain, for example, the Fox is played as an East End taxi driver. This was changed to be a market stall hustler for both the Hebrew and Arabic productions, says Wolman.
But the Owl’s character was more problematic. In the UK, he is perceived as a very British army general.
But, says Wolman, “our translator was convinced he couldn’t be military. [His view] was that there’s only one military that the [Arab] kids know and it’s the IDF. He felt it was putting a certain emphasis [on the character] and so he was rewritten as a youth leader.”
But when she started working with the cast, they disagreed.
“The [cast] felt that there are plenty of Arab militaries throughout the world and kids don’t necessarily see it as something negative or political. You can make fun of it and so he has gone back to being a member of the air force, as in the Hebrew version,” Wolman says.
Although she does not understand any Arabic, Wolman directs the Arab-speaking cast — but does so in Hebrew. So, how does she manage?
“First of all, I know the Hebrew and English script. And the story itself has its own rhythm, that’s set with its rhyme and its beat and it’s the same rhythm in every language,” Wolman explains.
“I’ve learned through listening,” she says. “It’s like developing another ear — it’s all music. I had my best one the other day when I corrected them on their Arabic and they all went ‘What?!’ I said, ‘Did I get that right,’ and they said, ‘You did!’”