Into the Haunted Doll’s House

On stage, scene 6 of Hansel & Gretel is the most atmospheric yet disturbing in the production. Both the music and the text for it are different in tone to any of the scenes before or after. Gretel has just shoved the witch in her own red-hot cauldron, and though we might expect brother and sister to leg it out of the house as fast as they can, instead Simon Armitage, who has written the poem that is the narrative of our production, leads them, and us, deeper into the heart of darkness. It’s a classic horror-movie scenario of innocents in jeopardy, and I’m reminded of the moment from Silence of the Lambs in which Clarice Starling, played by Jodie Foster, descends into the cellar of the murderer’s lair.

Matt Kaner threads his music sinuously through Simon’s text, and the result is bone-chilling.

House where the dark broods

House where the dark blooms

House where the dark breeds

House where the dark breathes

I began my work on the scene by laying out ideas for the production team about what the visuals might be. Simon had written an evocative ‘stage direction’ for it, though that was more by way of a suggestion of mood rather than anything too specific. He was always clear that he was happy to allow us the freedom to interpret.

To begin with I intended to film footage on location in abandoned and derelict buildings, looking particularly at cellars and rooms without windows. There had been much in the news about men (it always seems to be men) who imprison young women in cellars for decades, fathering children on them and keeping these ‘hidden families’ in isolation. But after long consideration I came to the conclusion that such a stark, documentary-like contrast to all the other visual aspects of the production, would be too great, and gradually the idea of location filming began to be replaced with the idea of a nightmarish doll’s house.

Below: cameraman Pete Telfer begins to shape the ‘haunted’ doll’s house with lighting rigs. His work on the sequence is immaculate.

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Most of my visual references stemmed from German Expressionist films of the 1910s – 1930s, with a spattering of American Gothic (most significantly Hitchcock’s Psycho) thrown in. The model is a complete four-story building with eight rooms leading off the spine of four sizeable hallways/landings through which the twisting stairways rise. In the event only just over half of the house was prepared for the camera, as the rest of the space was required for the lighting-rigs. (But I’m going to complete the as yet undecorated spaces shortly, and also paint the exterior of the house.)

The rooms were furnished with commercially available doll’s house furniture, much of which I carefully broke before texturising and painting. (Texture was grit gathered from the floor of my attic-studio, mixed into gouache and applied to rooms and furnishings in layers of ashy grey.)

Cameraman Pete Telfer produced wonderfully elegant and atmospheric gliding shots by panning a camera secured on a tripod, contrasting with the jerky, nervy ‘point-of-view’ footage achieved with a tiny hand-held cam the size of a golf ball. When edited together, the dual techniques were less destabilising for an audience than had we used a shaky hand-held throughout.

The making of the doll’s house is an extraordinary story for another time, though for now this post is the acknowledgement that without Simon Coupland, Jana Wagenkenecht and Stephanie Davies, it simply wouldn’t have happened. They were heroes, key to the whole endeavour and their part in it will be fully acknowledged and described at the Artlog later this year. (They know the reasons why I’m deferring the moment.)

An honourable mention, too, for Jon Street of The Moth Factory, Bristol, who guided me so unerringly through the film editing process, and contributed so generously at every stage of it. Everything, in the end, is collaboration.

Final word. Audiences have not see the last of the haunted doll’s house. Watch this space.

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Broken furniture piled high in the haunted doll’s house.

House where the light peeps

House where the dark leaks

House where the light bleeds

House where the dark weeps

 

Extracts are from the poem Hansel & Gretel by Simon Armitage.

 

4-Star Review for Hansel & Gretel in The Guardian

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Above: Hansel & Gretel, with Diana Ford and Lizzie Wort. Puppet design by Clive Hicks-Jenkins, Photographed for The Guardian by Spencer McPherson/Still Moving Media

Hansel & Gretel premiered at the Cheltenham Music Festival to a packed auditorium in the beautiful theatre of the Parabola Arts Centre on Saturday. Rian Evans gave the production a 4-star review in The Guardian.

Read it HERE.

Music by Matthew Kaner

Poetry by Simon Armitage

Direction and Design Supervision by Clive Hicks-Jenkins

Dramaturgy by Caroline Clegg

Produced by Kate Romano for Goldfield Productions

Narrator/Singer, Adey Grummet

Puppeteers, Di Ford and Lizzie Wort

Music performed by the Goldfield Ensemble

Puppets made by Jan Zalud

Puppet wardrobe supervision by Oonagh Creighton-Griffiths

Models and collages by Phil Cooper

Paper-cuts by Peter Lloyd

Animation by Clive Hicks-Jenkins assisted by Phil Cooper

Model and Animation Camera, Pete Telfer of Culture Colony

Vision Mixer and Production Cameraman, Jon Street of The Moth Factory

Lighting Design by David Abra

Listings information: touring dates 2018

  • Cheltenham Festival WORLD PREMIERE 7th July
  • Lichfield Festival ‘book at bedtime’, Lichfield Guildhall 13th July
  • Lichfield Festival matinee, Garrick Theatre 14th July
  • Three Choirs Festival, Tomkins Theatre 29th July
  • Oxford Contemporary Music, St Barnabas Church 14th September
  • Jack Lyons Concert Hall, York 3rd October
  • Barbican Milton Court Concert Hall LONDON PREMIERE 12th October
  • Canterbury Festival, Colyer-Fergusson Concert Hall 21st October
  • Bath Spa University, Michael Tippett Centre 24th October
  • Letchworth, Broadway Theatre 4th November

 

The Small Things

I’ve been away from home a lot. Preparations for Hansel & Gretel are in that stage of pre-production count-down once so familiar to me when my career was in the theatre, but which became a distant memory after I’d made a new life as an artist. (There are countdowns for exhibitions, too, though they’re as nothing in comparison to what happens when preparations for a stage production are in the final throes, and particularly so when there has been the commissioning of new music and text.) However these last two years have seen the blending together of my past and present practices as Hansel & Gretel evolved from a picture book to a toy theatre, and from a toy theatre to a stage-production-in-the-making before somewhat unexpectedly transforming back into a new though entirely different book, this time based on Simon Armitage’s reinvention of the fairy tale into the poem that became the libretto to Matt Kaner’s music.

The last two stages of the journey – rehearsals for the stage production and preparations for the new book – will be described in detail in Artlog posts yet-to-come. My absence here has been caused by the congested schedules of many projects coalescing, and there being no time to digest and write about the experiences as they’ve happened. I will make good the deficit later by way of recollection, when life slows down to a more manageable pace. But right now there’s the endless packing and unpacking of suitcases, the planning and booking for many train journeys, the changes of work spaces, the various beds and the hustle and bustle of editing suites and rehearsal rooms and getting across London in rush hour and trying to find the time to eat and sleep. Right now I must concentrate on the business in hand because very soon we’ll enter the final stages of rehearsals for Hansel & Gretel, and what has been planned for two years will be in performance, rather than existing only as a series of ideas in the minds of the collaborators.

Throughout all this, absence has lain like a shard of ice in my chest. My journeys home are are conflicted because though I always long to return Ty Isaf when I am away from it too much, that longing is now wrapped in sadness.

The past couple of days at home have been a welcome respite from the recent pace and intensity of work, but they reveal too the small absences that cut: an empty window-seat where Jack once kept vigil over his domain, and none of the smears on the window-glass that were the evidence of his enthusiasm for barking welcomes and warnings. The cushions on the sofas are neatly arranged, no longer reorganised by him into his preference for high-vantage sleeping platforms. No dog-hair-tumbleweed on the painted floorboards or stairs, no splashed puddles by his water-bowl (no water-bowl) and our bed now smoothed and pristine when it’s time for sleep, no longer subject to Jack’s habit of retiring early to make it a cosy nest ready for Peter and me to join him. No dog-lead and harness on the back seat of the car. No towel at the ready in the boot-room. No red frisbee on the grass waiting for throw and fetch. On waking, no weight of dog on my chest, or across my legs or neck, or tucked into shoulder, elbow or armpit. No dog-hair on my clothes any more, and no Sellotape in my pocket to remove it so as to look halfway to presentable.

I miss all this. I miss, I miss, I miss….

 

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Jack and the toad he made friends with.

 

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In Rehearsal on the Stage of Milton Court Theatre at Barbican

 

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Hansel & Gretel in a workshop rehearsal at Milton Court Theatre last week. Puppeteers Diana Ford (left) and Lizzie Wort (right) play the roles, and interestingly swop puppets during the process, so each plays both characters.

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Poet and author of the Hansel & Gretel text, Simon Armitage, drops in on rehearsals at the Milton Court Theatre, Barbican and meets Gretel, here being introduced by her director!

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Photos courtesy of Phil Cooper

May Day Letter

Dear Catriona

I awoke this morning thinking about you, as I’ve done on most May Day mornings since your departure on May Day thirteen years ago. Of course you’ve never really gone away, as I still think of you a dozen times every day, recalling our conversations and the times we shared. Your voice, your laughter and your presence are as familiar to me in imagination as ever they were in life, and though I wonder whether one day my recollections of you may start to slip their tethers, right now it feels as though you’ve only just left the room. So here I am again, writing to you to tell you how much I miss you still, holding on and bringing you back by dint of that trick of conjuring a greatly missed presence through the art of remembering and storytelling.

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We shared a love of storytelling, you and I. You had great skills for taking histories and weaving them into narratives, including the magnificent feat of reimagining my late father into your suite of poems, The Mare’s Tale. You and Trevor were such friends. Only a friend could have taken his recollections and forged them into something as moving as you crafted to accompany the drawings I made in an outpouring of grief for him. Peter often says that my grasp of facts can be somewhat interpretive, but it can’t be denied that I learned much from you, a master of the art of how to take chaos, to face it down, to order it and bend it into shape until it becomes something fine. And now I do the same, ordering the tangle of memories and loss, until the next time I get caught out and have to start the process all over again. I know now that while I breathe there will always be the imminence of chaos, and the repeated processes of gathering and curating memories into stories, ordering them and making sense. It’s a bit like tidying drawers that have become muddled with too much stuff rattling around!

Jack died a couple of months ago. Another thread broken. He was a young dog thirteen years ago when he lay across your legs while you were quietly dying in your bed, softly calling his name and curling your fingers into his coat for comfort. And just ten days ago, Pip Koppel, who gave Jacket-the-puppy to us, died too, at the home she shared with us for a year while we looked for a house here in west Wales.

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When my grieving for you was at its most raw, Peter and I were living with Pip. She often noticed and asked me what was wrong, though I could never explain because at the time I had no words for what I was feeling. So she took me into her pottery workshop and together we threw clay and made things, and sadness was pummelled and beaten and reshaped into vessels.

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With Pip gone, the list of those I miss grows longer. I keep making art. They hold those I’ve loved closer to my heart, these stories, paintings, drawings and reinventions. Chaos into order. Pain into creation. Darkness into light.

 

I miss you still. With all my love, Clive

 

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The Blogroll

Scrolling through my long established blogroll, I discovered countless broken links. Some clicks carried visitors to sites that while full of past treasures, had long ago ceased from updating. The conclusion can’t be avoided that what had once been a delightful route to adventures elsewhere, had become a list that no-one was using anymore. So I’ve discontinued it, for the present.

However I shall be building a blogroll afresh again, and some of those who were on the old one – dependable and sharing artists, authors, poets, publishers and friends committed to the art of writing  – will be reinstated. (And I’ll happily listen to arguments from anyone wanting an old favourite returned.) But the fact is that everything needs freshening up from time to time, and today I’ve had a Spring Clean!

Until later.