The Serpent’s Bite: a natural history of the witch. Part 3

After nearly two years of preparation, in 2018 rehearsals began for an adaptation of Hansel & Gretel into a new performable work, with a score by composer Matthew Kaner and a text by the poet Simon Armitage. What’s so extraordinarily clever about the text – which was written before the music – is that in it Simon presents the siblings as close-to-starving child-migrants escaping a war-torn country, their journey hazardous in ways echoing the Black Forest wildernesses of the Brother’s Grimm, and yet with contemporary references that bracingly season the old tale with with a dash of darkly glittering folk/horror. The music was written for the Goldfield Ensemble line-up of five musicians, and the work was commissioned and produced by Goldfield Productions, helmed by producer – and Goldfield clarinetist – Kate Romano, who’s definitely a woman-of-many-skills.

Below: Narrator Adey Grummet fronting the Goldfield Ensemble. (Photograph courtesy of Still Moving Media.)

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Peter Lloyd was among the small group of artists known to me who were invited to work on the design and visual effects for the production. He would make the paper-cut ‘shadow’ puppets of the witch. These proved too elaborate and large to be operated live on a shadow-screen, and a plan evolved to instead film them as stop-motion silhouettes on a light-screen/animation table. In performance the film is projected onto a large-scale screen behind the small puppets of the children. However before Peter could begin work on the witch, I had to provide him with guideline studies. My sketches were intentionally rough, meant as starting points for the character. Peter was briefed to ‘freely elaborate’ on what I’d produced.

The first drawing was much influenced by Goya’s naked witches. I guess I knew from the outset that the idea wouldn’t get to the finishing line, but I needed to try it out.

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Peter was very keen to be given a design that would enable him to be freely creative with his paper cutting. He was scornful of the second image I produced that made her a bag-lady like an overweight sparrow in layered cardigans. (And he was right!)

 

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So I returned to the illustrations I’d made for the picturebook. In those I’d used the notion of the witch being short-sighted, her apparel sewn with eyes as an expression of sympathetic magic. (Simon’s libretto makes great play of the witch’s near blindness.) But we also wanted to make a slow reveal of her true appearance, and so her garment became an all-enveloping cloak to obscure her hybrid anatomy.

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When I suggested to Peter that the design might include a crustacean’s carapace, like a spider-crab, he was off like a rocket! A tail was discussed, along the lines of a scorpion’s stinger. Thereafter he was keen to give her many arms, but I declined the idea because I knew the filming schedule was going to be very tight. Another four arms plus hands and all those extra fingers could have added days of work to the witch sequences. As it was, her mere ten spidery digits monopolised the lion’s share of her studio time.

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Peter Lloyd’s translation of the drawings into witch silhouette-puppet number 1.

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Witch silhouette-puppet number 2.

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When the puppet arrived for filming, I made only small changes to it, though significant ones in terms of movement.  I hid a sliding-bar attachment for the hips behind the puppet, so as to give her more flexibility, and changed her knees to backward facing (see below), so that her gait would be weirder. It made her much more interesting to animate.

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The superb quality and detail of Peter Lloyd’s paper-cutting really came into its own with the large head and hands he prepared for the close-up sequences. The hands were particularly good, with secret eyes embedded in the fingers and forearms. The jagged, slash-like cuts in her face loaned a wonderful texture to the puppet. Phil Cooper, model-maker and scenic painter on the project – and also my assistant animator – cut upper and lower eyelids to add to the puppet, so that we could make her blink. Blinking is a great way to add life to an animation.

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The stop-motion sequences of the witch were reversed to negative at the editing stage. We felt that she was much scarier when bone white against a dark background. Peter Lloyd provided her with an almost prehensile tongue.

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The pupils of her eyes were made in two sizes, pin-prick tiny and enlarged, again to add expressiveness.

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Click on the control bar below to see the Witch in action in this extended stop motion animation sequence. This was a first edit that I made with Peter Telfer, who filmed all of the animation sequences for Hansel & Gretel.

 

 

 

Below: on stage the witch’s nose sails into view, dwarfing the puppets of the children looking up in awe at it. (Photograph courtesy of Still Moving Media.)
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Here the witch unfolds from her carapace and stretches her arms, legs and tail like a vulture waking from an afternoon nap. It’s a shot we didn’t use in the production, though I liked it a lot. Matt Kaner produced one music sequence in which strings create an unnerving sense of edginess, and it perfectly matched the restlessness of the witch’s hands, which are never still.

 

 

Photograph taken by Phil Cooper of me working at the light-box/animation table. The tape marks edge of frame, so that Phil and I knew the points at which to enter and depart a shot.

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The hands were wonderful to animate, more like insects than I would have thought possible. Their articulation was enormously elaborate. An animator’s dream!

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The witch’s house in the production is fluid and shifting, as though the magic holding everything together is unreliable and certainly illusory.

Below: salt-dough Lebkuchen made by Phil Cooper.

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What starts as an iced Lebkuchen biscuit resolves more corporeally into a slightly grubby construct, perhaps made of  children’s building blocks, or maybe from congealed sugar. Ominously, the out-of-scale chimney looks as though it would be more at home on an incinerator.

Below: Model designed and made by Phil Cooper and built from a combination of contemporary and vintage building blocks.

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Later, when the children make a tour of its interior, we’re transported to the rooms of a sinister doll’s house, decaying and mouldy. Nothing in this world quite fits together. It’s dream-like and fractured. The words and music that accompany us on this estate-agent-from-hell’s tour of the grim spaces, is the bone-chilling heart of the production.

Below: doll’s house built by Simon Coupland and Jana Wagenknecht, with contributions from Stephanie Davies and painted by me. Lighting by Pete Telfer.

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(The full story behind the building of the ‘Witch Doll’s House’ is one that requires more space than I can spend on it in this post, but I will be returning to the subject later, to give the whole picture.)

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Hansel & Gretel is currently on tour. Details of performances are below. Contact the venues for ticket availability.

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4 thoughts on “The Serpent’s Bite: a natural history of the witch. Part 3

  1. I just love this.
    It is really frightening, but beautiful at the same time.
    As I don’t travel anymore, I hope there shall be a film of the whole performance, and that it will come out in DVD or BR format, so that we in the rest of the world, can enjoy it in our homes.
    Love
    María

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