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Shigenogi the shoemaker

Image of the stage curtain, designed by John Semevsky (Ref: SAD.1009/5/8)
Stage curtain, designed by John Semevsky (Ref: SAD.1009/5/8)

It’s carnival month, and so we’re getting into the spirit with the tale of ‘Shigenogi the shoemaker’. The Sudan Archive at Durham contains a great variety of archival and printed material, and also a collection of museum objects. Together these document aspects of Sudan’s history from the Nineteenth Century to the present day and are an important research resource for researchers from the university and around the world.

Recently we were very happy to accept the donation to the Sudan Archive of a set of hand puppets and a stage curtain from an entertainment that was first performed for “all the British children of the Three Towns” (Khartoum, Khartoum North, Omdurman) at the Governor-General’s palace in Khartoum on 27 December 1946. The puppets brought with them a copy of John Semevsky’s story of ‘Shigenogi the shoemaker’, which was adapted into dramatic form for the 1946 performance probably by R.C. Maxwell-Darling, an entomologist then working for the Wellcome Tropical Research Laboratories in Khartoum. Semevsky’s text is written in Russian, and has been translated by Dr Polina Kliuchnikova, OWRI Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Durham University’s School of Modern Languages and Cultures, and to whom we offer our thanks. John Semevsky (Ivan Nicholaiovich Leschitz Semevsky, 1893-1980) was born in Moscow, and educated first at Vladivostok Grammar School (1902-1911), then Peter the Great Technical Institute in St Petersburg, and finally at the Konstantine Artillery College. He served in the Russian Army, including periods of active service, from 1916 until 1919, at Luga, Cherepovetz, Archangel, Brest (France), Toulon, the Macedonian front and Salonika. After the war, after a period in the Red Cross Hospital at Odessa, he made his way to Paris, where he met his wife Nina Jasonovna Melik-Begliarova. They then went to the Sudan where John worked as a civil and structural engineer. On his retirement from Sudan Government service he and his family moved to South Africa where he continued to work as an engineer.

While John Semevsky grew up in in Eastern Russia, it is a little further east in Japan that his tale is based. Shigenogi is an artful dodger figure who, in order to win the hand of Princess Nogi, takes up her father the Governor’s challenge to defeat three powerful beings terrorising the city of Furuyama. The wily and rather scruffy Shigenogi must confront a giant, a witch, and a sea monster before he is transformed into a handsome samurai and returns to the city to claim the hand and heart of Nogi.

The 1946 performance was reviewed in the Sudan Star and Times, and this review reveals that some adaptations from the original story had taken place – Princess Nogi was re-named Hyacinth, the giant Magog, and the sea monster Meet-You-East-You; a Conductor character was also introduced, manipulated by Semevsky himself, and which performed a narrative role with a side-kick dog. Semevsky had made the puppets themselves from ambatch wood and designed the sets, while his wife had designed the costumes. The rest of the afternoon the children were entertained by the Sudan Defence Force Band and a magician, enjoyed tea on the lawn, sang nursery rhymes, and were given presents by Lady Huddleston in the palace’s music room.

The hosts for this December children’s puppet play were Lady Huddleston (1895-1967) and her husband General Hubert Huddleston (1880-1950), the Governor-General of Sudan from 1940-1947. Semevsky was employed by the Sudan Government in its Irrigation Department from 1921 to his retirement in 1948. As is evident he was also an artist – and a group of paintings of scenes from this story remain in private hands. The Sudan Archive already contains a great deal of material on the culture and social lives of the British community and their interactions with the Sudanese. To the number of photograph albums, cine-films, journals and correspondence we can now add a giant, a witch, a sea monster, a princess and Shigenogi.

Image of Magog or Kiyotada the giant (Ref: SAD.1009/5/2)
Magog or Kiyotada the giant (Ref: SAD.1009/5/2)

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