I am enormously obliged to Anna Zaranko for the insight of her questions in our interview for the online magazine, Culture.PL. It makes such a big difference when the interview takes you down paths of genuine surprise and interest. Anna wanted to explore the influence of Polish folk-art on my work, and this for me was a first, as no-one has ever asked these questions before, even though I often refer to the Polish influence when I write about my illustration work. To read the piece, Click on the link below:
Creating the characters for the Simon Armitage re-invention of the story of Hansel & Gretel, proved a long process of development. To begin with the visualisations were for the stage. Only later did I have to think about the translation of the stage characters to the book published by Design for Today.
In the case of the mother – who in Simon’s Hansel & Gretel: a Nightmare in Eight Scenes is a loving and protective one, far from the wicked mother/stepmother of the original story as told by the Grimm brothers – I created the basic idea of the character as she’d be presented on stage in a shadow-puppet form. My very simple design defined her overall look, though without too much detail.
Once the initial design was established and agreed between me and Peter Lloyd, he further developed it into an elaborate, articulated shadow-puppet, ready to be used in animation sequences for projection onto a screen during the live performances. It went through several stages.
As finally seen on stage, the shadow-puppet version of the mother was an extraordinary creation by Peter, stout of form and with a ruined, almost bovine peasant face deeply scored by hardship. But the careworn appearance belied her character, because when animated for the camera she transformed. Dainty on her feet and with expressive hands and a bobbing, bird-like demeanour, her anxiety for her children’s safety, became her defining characteristic.
Animating Peter’s shadow puppets was a pleasure, because they were so beautifully conceived and executed. My animation assistant was Phil Cooper, who also designed the sets for the stage production.
When the time came to re-examine the characters for the illustrated book, I had to think again about the mother.
In illustration form, without the medium of animation to more fully express her character, after trialling some images I felt weren’t working (see the two above) I decided to made her less stolidly shapeless than in her shadow-puppet form. Though my work retained clear vestiges of Peter Lloyd’s weary, middle-aged shadow-puppet mother in all of her paper-cut, filigree complexity, in one image I was able to carry her back to when she was a young and expectant first-time mother. Sometimes lines of text which in a live performance flash past, in a book may be paused at and reflected upon in an accompanying image The physical act of reading, looking and turning pages, imposes its own, slower pace.
Creativity has fluid boundaries. I would have loved to show more aspects of the mother in the book, but in the end it’s important to be rigorous when deciding on which visual ideas will best express the story, and which need to be trimmed away. So she appears just three times: at the beginning, in the company of her husband, in an image showing her pregnant with her daughter (inspired by Chagall), and at the end of the book, in an image that shows her fate.
Scores, possibly hundreds of sketches, from thumbnails to fully worked maquettes and illustrations, were made in order to arrive at the three images of the mother in the published edition of Simon Armitage’s text. But if tomorrow I had to illustrate a story in which she made a reappearance, I could portray her with no hesitation. I could draw her as a child, as a young woman, or as a woman for whom life was quite different to the version in our book. I could draw her in a heartbeat, because I know her so well.
The Design for Today edition of Hansel & Gretel: a Nightmare in Eight Scenes, is the winner of the 2020 V&A Illustrated Book Award. Copies may be purchased:
The Russian Bird is a marvel of clockwork ingenuity. Though a little faded from too much sunlight in her youth (we’re more careful with her now) her mechanisms are still strong.
When fully wound she turns her head from side to side, her beak opens and closes, her wings flap, her tail bobs and she sings with considerable brio. Her voice, powered by bellows in her chest, while not the sweetest nonetheless has an impressive vibrato. I always think her more a music-hall artiste than a concert-platform diva. More Vesta Tilley than Dame Kiri te Kanawa!
There’s certainly no point in anyone talking while she’s performing because she drowns out all competition, which is pretty impressive for a lady of her small size and considerable years.
She moved audiences when projected onto a screen during performances of Hansel & Gretel: a Nightmare in Eight Scenes, beautifully accompanying the music that conjured a forest full of birds. Here’s the sequence, though alas without the live music accompaniment. (She was not best pleased that the composer eschewed her voice, but stepped up to the challenge of conveying her role through the medium of mime like a born silent movie star!)
When the poem by Simon Armitage that had been the libretto of the production was published in an illustrated edition by Design for Today, the Russian Bird was awarded a double page spread, and in it she’s quite the Queen of the Forest surrounded by her retinue of smaller birds, all pecking away at Hansel’s path of scattered crumbs.
Deeply conscientious about her duties as artist’s muse, she’s a tireless model and will go to any lengths to facilitate whatever’s required of her in the studio. For her forthcoming appearance on the cover of the picture book Bird House for Design for Today, she carried a Byzantine palace knapsack-style on her back, standing unflinchingly for an entire afternoon while I drew her.
She’s made guest appearances in several galleries and museums. Here at MoMA Machynlleth she takes centre stage on the Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop Hansel & Gretel Toy Theatre that toured the country in the stage production of Hansel & Gretel: a Nightmare in Eight Scenes in 2018.
You can see in these snapshots that she loves demonstrating to an adoring public that she’s the inspiration behind what is clearly – in her opinion – the most important illustration in the book of Hansel & Gretel: a Nightmare in Eight Scenes.
She’s never slow to be my messenger, and friends are always won over by her bright eyes and sprightly demeanour.
Below: in a tiny theatre of her own, produced in a small edition for members of the Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop Harlequinade Club.
When not making public appearances, Russian Bird is tirelessly creative in the studio, always game to collaborate with other toys on making scenarios she thinks may offer me new pathways to paintings and illustrations. Here she is in a stunning tableau vivant interpretation of Death and the Maiden.
Here we catch her giving one of her renowned masterclasses to an eager young student.
None of us at Ty Isaf knows where we’d be without her.
For all those who missed the tour of Hansel & Gretel: a nightmare in eight scenes
to see the production, recorded at the London premiere in the Milton Court Concert Hall, Barbican, last October.
The film is by the extraordinary Pete Telfer at Culture Colony. Pete had been cameraman and editor on an animated book-trailer we’d made as a promotion for the original Hansel & Gretel picture-book published by Random Spectacular, and then in 2018 joined the Goldfield Production team to work with me on the filmed and animated footage to be projected onstage during the performances.
Pete followed all stages of the pre-production, chronicling the creative processes and interviewing the team in the lead up to the premiere at last year’s Cheltenham Festival of Music. This documentation was made as a part of his ongoing and ground-breaking initiative at Culture Colony to record significant cultural events with Welsh artists at the heart of them. Without his generosity and tireless effort, there would have been no comprehensive record of the making of ‘Hansel & Gretel’, and all of us associated with it, production company, production staff and performers, owe him a huge debt of gratitude for his outstanding work. Later, Goldfield found a modest budget to underpin Pete’s filming of the Barbican performances, and the film has been edited together from that material.
In 2011 it was Pete Telfer, together with my then partner – and now husband, Peter Wakelin – who encouraged me to diversify my practice as an artist by making some animation tests with my studio maquettes, and my rather clumsy efforts were edited by Pete into a haunting little film with a spoken text by the American poet Marly Youmans. In 2013 he was animation cameraman on ‘The Mare’s Tale’, composed by Mark Bowden to a text by Damian Walford Davies, and premiered in a single, fully-staged production performed by Mid Wales Music Theatre.
When Kate Romano asked me to work with her to create a new Hansel & Gretel for her company Goldfield Productions, Pete Telfer came to the project with me, together with artists Peter Lloyd (papercut puppets), Jan Zalud (puppet-maker), Philip Cooper (scenic design, models and animation assistant), Jonathan Street (animation editor and onstage cameraman), Di Ford (puppeteer) and Oon Cg, (puppet wardrobe). I approached Simon Armitage, who I’d been in conversations with since he’d invited me to contribute illustrations to the Faber & Faber revision of his translation of Sir Gawain & the Green Knight, and he came to meet Kate Romano and me to discuss whether he’d be interested in producing a libretto for music yet to be written by composer Matthew Kaner. Simon agreed, and we were up and away.
There were others who joined the team as the work progressed, but these were the collaborators who were in place from the beginning.
‘Not a sugary dream, but a nightmare in eight scenes: make no bones about poet Simon Armitage’s contemporary retelling of the tale most familiar in the Brothers Grimm version. Hansel and Gretel’s plight becomes that of child refugees, whose parents’ agonising decision is to abandon their offspring to give them their only chance of surviving war. Armitage took his cue from the darkly imaginative illustrations by artist Clive Hicks-Jenkins, who has now translated those original visions into a puppet show with new music by Matthew Kaner. In this premiere performance at the Chelteneham Festival staged by Goldfield Productions, what appeared at first to be a slight, small-scale affair in the end resonated altogether more deeply.
Kaner’s quintet of players – strings, wind and toy pianos – were arranged on either side of a screen whose animated shadow play featured first the parents and then the ravenous craw of the archaeopteryx-like witch. On the central trestle table were Hansel and Gretel, wooden puppets barely a foot high that were manipulated by Diana Ford and Lizzie Wort. It was the intimacy of tiny gestures offering expressive detail, in turn mirroring Kaner’s musical mood, that spoke volumes. Armitage’s words are the constantly shining white pebbles guiding the piece; his final verbal riff on light and dark will be even better savoured on the published page. Narrator Adey Grummet – twice bursting into sung lines – emphasised the mix of humour and satire with the moments of dystopian horror, making this an all too timely reminder of some children’s living, waking, starving nightmare. (Rian Evans, full review in The Guardian)
The past twelvemonth has been a time of far too many losses, with loved ones of long-standing fading and falling away. While it’s the time in my life when such things must be expected, 2018 has nevertheless been particularly brutal, and I’ve hated witnessing the cull in my circle.
Odd therefore that these two little creatures are playing so much on my mind. Perhaps it’s because of the strange alchemy of puppetry that wood, fashioned by a master and in the hands of the most incredible interpreters, can so astonishingly conjure animate life, tugging at our heartstrings and becoming so plausibly, heartrendingly real, that when I saw them being packed away by our producer at the end of the tour, with the hollow sense that I would not see them or hold them again (don’t ask), they somehow became the focus of all the losses of the year.
I miss them so much, and I wonder how such a thing can be. I suppose it’s because they are, after all, Pinocchio’s progeny, wood transformed into flesh and bone, and sap into blood. In order to believe in them, we make the puppets real, and I, who was one of their creators, find myself grieving over their absence from my life, more than I am comfortable with. That is both the miracle of making life out of nothing, and the curse.
Above: poet/librettist Simon Armitage, meets Gretel for the first time.
My heartfelt thanks to Jan Zalud (puppet-maker), Di Ford and Lizzie Wort (puppeteers) and Oonagh Creighton-Griffiths (puppet costumier), who shared in equal parts with me the creation of the puppets of Hansel and Gretel.
I’m on the most wonderful adventure with publisher Joe Pearson and his assistant Laurence at Design for Today, and Simon Armitage’s glittering reinvention of a fairytale favourite has given us the most thrilling material to work with.
Simon’s Hansel & Gretel: a nightmare in eight scenes, formed the text to Matthew Kaner’s music in a production featuring the Goldfield Ensemble, plus actor, puppets and shadow-play, that I directed this year. (A recording of a performance of it given at Barbican is being broadcast by BBC Radio 3 on December 22nd.) In Spring 2019 the text is being published in a beautiful Design for Today edition, masterminded by Joe.
We’re currently tweaking the colours, a muted and atmospheric palette of dusty pinks, blues and yellows that I’ve nicknamed my ‘old bus-ticket’ range. (I think Farrow & Ball should take note!) This is the first ‘colour illustrated’ book I’ve produced for a contemporary text, and the process – thanks to Joe’s meticulous care for the book and our joint ambition to make it truly splendid – is the most fun I’ve ever had on an illustration project. What a great experience our work together over the past few months has been! My thanks to Simon, who came up with the idea of the illustrated edition and asked my help to make it happen, and of course to Joe, who unhesitatingly took up the challenge.
The palette for Hansel & Gretel: a nightmare in eight scenes, draws on the faded colours of old bus tickets.
Above, the Witch meets a bad end, shoved into a cauldron of molten Foam Shrimps, Jelly Beans, Glacier Mints and Liquorice Allsorts!
My task of illustrating Simon Armitage’s poem Hansel & Gretel: a nightmare in eight scenes, has been completed. It has been the most exciting work, especially coming at the conclusion of rehearsals for the stage production of Hansel & Gretel that I directed for its six month tour with the Goldfield Ensemble..
One of the things about any text presented on a stage, is that there never seems quite enough room within the short duration of a performance – especially one in which the words are set to music – to explore it as thoroughly as can be managed in a book. So the Design for Today edition of the text is my opportunity to really foreground Simon’s magnificent wordplay. A couple of weeks ago I carried all the original artwork in portfolios to London to deliver to Joe Pearson at Design for Today, and everything is currently being scanned, cleaned, layered and coloured by Joe and his assistant, Laurence.
I’m cock-a-hoop with the design for the book, which is just perfect. It’ll be out in the Spring. Stay tuned for updates re. pre-ordering, plus news of the special edition. (Which will come with two additional images printed by Dan Bugg at Penfold Press.)
It’s always been my custom to share day-to-day design progress with the team during pre-production, not because I’m seeking comment or contribution, but because by the time we get to the rehearsal room I want everyone to understand how the visuals have evolved. The idea is to give everyone a chance to see the ingredients before we begin to cook the meal! Nevertheless, sharing design work-in-progress can create problems, and it’s a fact that the shadow-puppets of the Mother and Father that were being prepared for the stage production of Hansel & Gretel, caused consternation in my producer when first she saw them.
Peter Lloyd, our genius paper-cutter, had been ‘briefed’ with loose sketches I’d provided to define the ‘characters’ of the parents. Illustrated above are a couple I made of the Mother.
I told him that within the basic framework of the character design, he was free to develop and elaborate as he wished. And that’s exactly what he did. When he sent me snapshots of the paper-cut puppets under construction, I knew I’d been right to choose him for our team.
Some minor changes were made to her mouth in order to better define it, and later, transparent swivelling bars were added to facilitate easier animation of her eyes.
Everything in the stage version of Hansel & Gretel, is as seen/imagined by the children. They use the contents of their toy box to act out and reinvent a chaotic world into one they can better understand and control. While the children are beautiful creations by master-carver, Jan Zalud, brought to life by onstage puppeteers, the baker/Mother, woodcutter/Father and forest-dwelling Witch are shown only as animated silhouettes projected onto a large screen.
From the moment I read Simon Armitage’s script I knew that the parents needed initially to be as unfathomable to an audience as they clearly are to their children. Gretel in particular constantly mis-hears both eavesdropped conversations and what people say directly to her. (I do even wonder whether she’s perhaps a little deaf.) This results in the children misconstruing their parents concern for the family’s safety in a war-zone, into a more sinister plot to be rid of them.
Above: at the shadow-screen, assistant animator, Phil Cooper, makes minute changes of position to the articulated puppets between shots.
In order to ensure the viewpoints of audiences would align with those of the children, the parents needed to be unconventional, strange and unreadable. On the surface they’d appear as peasants, almost bovine with their expressionless faces and physical stolidness. Peter Lloyd caught this completely. The stoutness and the mask-like, weathered faces are off-putting, but nonetheless arrest us and make us pay attention. And gradually, we begin to see these people for what they more truly are, which is careworn and deeply loving. In this case, first appearances have been misleading.
Peter Lloyd’s remarkable skill as a paper-cutter gave me everything – and much more – that I needed in terms of appearance. But having meticulously reproduced the fixed attachment points of the tiny arms and legs I’d indicated in the first drawings, those limitations severely hampered expressive movement, a fact immediately apparent once I had the puppets in my hands and could play with them. So I spent a day re-configuring the joints using transparent plastic to make swivelling and elbowed bars allowing a much wider range of movement, and by the time the pair went in front of the camera, they were flexible and up for anything. Walking is always an indicator of how well a shadow puppet is performing, and the test shot of the Mother walking from edge of frame to centre, illustrates her dainty gait. (See it at the foot of this post.)
For the illustrated book of Simon Armitage’s Hansel & Gretel poem that I’m currently working on, due for publication by Design for Today in Spring 2019, I began with a trial image that was a fairly close adaptation of the shadow-puppet Mother. She even retained the articulation points of a shadow-puppet.
But as I came to grips with fitting together images and narrative in print, I realised that with only three appearances scattered through the book, I’d need to express everything about the Mother in some kind of shorthand: one image to introduce and establish her, a second to demonstrate her tenderness toward her daughter, and a third in which she’s dead and in her coffin. To this end, the design evolved for a third and final time, and the Mother became slighter and more youthful, though still retaining the strangenesses – bifurcated nose, cheeks oddly marked with the outlines of scallop shells and a heavy Kahlo-esque monobrow – that had defined her in the animations for the stage production. Here she is in a rough sketch, recalling her first pregnancy. (There’s no indication in Simon’s text, but I’ve always sensed that Gretel is the elder by about a year.)
And here the finished illustration, though minus the colour.
The book’s final image of the Mother shows her shroud-wrapped and in her coffin. It was a hard one to pull off, because it had to be shocking and yet tender. This is the coffin illustration in the process of being made, together with some preparatory thumbnail sketches.
To her credit, Kate our producer revised her initial response to the shadow-puppet, and in the end grew to love and be moved by Peter Lloyd’s interpretation of the character. The shadow-puppet gets quite a lot of screen time in the production, and in the last scene, appears not as a corpse – as she does in the book – but as a fretful, glimmering ghost. I too have grown to love her in both her forms of shadow-presence and illustration.
Animation made for Hansel & Gretel.
Shadow-puppet: Peter Lloyd
Animation: Clive Hicks-Jenkins and Phil Cooper
Camera: Pete Telfer of Culture Colony
The beautiful Russian clockwork tin bird manufactured in a Moscow toy factory and that I acquired long ago, finally got a starring role in the stage production of Hansel & Gretel. The clever mechanism produces a song from bellows hidden within, but on stage the birdsong is provided by Matthew Kaner’s evocative score and the players of the Goldfield Ensemble. In this segment of film with camerawork by Pete Telfer that’s projected onto the set during performances, the forest is conjured by turned wooden trees from Forge Creative. They were produced as a special order for me by the company, with no polish so that our designer Phil Cooper could paint them a distressed bone-white. Both in the sections of film and live on stage with the puppets, the trees became one with the sets built from vintage wooden building-blocks that make up the worlds the children create from the contents of their toy-box. And although the puppet, building-blocks and trees are all relatively small, stage cameras live-stream all the action to a large screen above the players.
Hansel & Gretel was commissioned and produced by Goldfield Productions. With music by Matthew Kaner, words by the poet Simon Armitage and directed by me, it has toured through England for the last six months. Just one performance remains to be given, at Letchworth on Nov 4th. Tickets may be purchased:
Above: photograph by Di Ford.
Above: photograph by Still Moving Media
After a beautifully projected and nuanced performance of Hansel & Gretel at the Jack Lyons Concert Hall in York last week, the company move on to the exciting event of the London Premiere at Barbican tomorrow evening. (October12th)
The Milton Court Concert Hall, Barbican, is the largest of the tour venues, and it’s there that the performance is to be recorded by BBC Radio 3 for later broadcast. This new version of Hansel & Gretel, with a libretto by Simon Armitage and composed by Matthew Kaner, has been two years in the planning and making, and tomorrow many of the creatives who brought it to life will be present in the audience to celebrate the achievement. Congratulations to all, but particularly to Producer Kate Romano, who under the umbrella of her Goldfield Productions made it all happen.
Above: Lizzie Wort and Di Ford, our incomparable puppeteers on the production. The puppet maker was Jan Zalud with puppet wardrobe created by Oonagh Creighton Griffiths.