The Mare’s Tale Rises

 

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On Saturday, Here + Now: Eighty Years of Collecting Contemporary Art for Wales, opens at the Pierhead Building in Cardiff. Curated by Dr Peter Wakelin and made in association with the National Eisteddfod, the exhibition runs from 3rd – 11th August, and thereafter goes on a tour of Wales. One of the works on display is my large drawing of 2001, Stumbles and Cannot Rise from my Mari Lwyd series The Mare’s Tale, on loan from National Museum Wales.

It’s coincidental that the week the exhibition opens also marks the announcement that the Berkeley Ensemble will next year tour performances of composer Mark Bowden’s staggeringly atmospheric music work, with a libretto by Damian Walford Davies that drew inspiration from my drawings. The exciting news is that the Mare’s Tale tour is a national one, and there will be performances of it in England, Scotland and Wales, and I’m enormously obliged to the PRS Foundation, Creative Scotland and Arts Council NI for funding the project.

It’s thrilling news that two music works I’ve collaborated so closely on, Hansel and Gretel by composer Matthew Kaner and poet Simon Armitage for Kate Romano’s Goldfield Productions, currently on a tour of England, and The Mare’s Tale by Mark and Damian, are both being carried to a wide audience.

A live performance of Hansel and Gretel is to be broadcast later this year by Radio 3. Date to be announced.

Below: Stop-motion test made for a workshop performance of The Mare’s Tale in 2013.

 

Animating the Unspeakable

The Witch that appeared in the Random Spectacular published picture book of Hansel & Gretel (see above), had already been through a complex line of development from first ideas to finished illustrations by the time I came to re-think her for the stage production.

On the stage the children were to be presented as tabletop puppets made by the wonderful artist/puppet-maker Jan Zalud, based on designs that I’d produced as a guide and that the two of us continued to discuss in great detail throughout his process of making. The puppets’ wardrobes were supervised by Oonagh Creighton-Griffiths.

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But the Witch was always going to be conjured as a shadow screen presence, and in the end was produced as several articulated papercut puppets that were stop-motion operated on a light-box in the manner of the silhouette films made by the great pioneer animator, Lotte Reiniger.

My friend, artist Peter Lloyd, created the papercut puppets for the production. He started with basic designs I provided, and then freely elaborated on them. Peter added the extraordinary detail of the many eyes worked into the surface texture of the Witch’s arms and hands, borrowing the idea from the garment stitched with eyes that the character had worn in my original picturebook. I knew from the moment I saw the papercuts that he’d gifted me with an amazing reimagining of the Witch from the book. A villain needs to be visually fascinating, whether an evil genius or a predatory alien, and the Witch in Hansel & Gretel is no exception. Peter Lloyd’s witchy hands – which as I recall were the first papercuts he made of the character – have a filigree orientalist quality that any animator would be happy to work with. Every finger-joint was articulated, so that when I came to animate the hands (assisted by another artist/collaborator on the project, Phil Cooper), I had the best possible range of movement.

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The Witch papercuts were filmed by Pete Telfer of Culture Colony as black silhouettes on a white screen, but were reversed to negative in the editing process, to create a more ghostly effect.

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It’s a fact that I simply couldn’t have produced silhouette puppets as elaborate as Peter’s, as his paper-cutting skills are magnificent and far exceed my own. He created three versions of the Witch: large papercuts of her head and hands for close-up shots, and full-length cloaked and uncloaked representations of her, the latter revealing her full, hybrid crab/scorpion appearance. (Her lashing, scorpion tail was restless in the animations, a barometer – rather like a cat’s tail – of her temper.)

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Above and below: two of Peter Lloyd’s silhouettes for the Witch on his cutting board.

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There were some minor adjustments to the puppets made during the filming. On the last day of shooting I cannibalised parts from two of them to make a fourth version, in order to present the character in her death throes. In addition, Phil Cooper and I added some eyelids to the large head of the Witch, to enliven her expressions in close up. (In animation, the mechanisms of blinking play a huge part in bringing a character to life.) I adjusted the principal pivot points of the full length puppets, adding transparent, swivelling animation-levers to enlarge their repertoires of movement. That included repositioning the hips and rearranging the legs so as to make the knees reverse-jointed, resulting in a more bird-like gait. (See below.)

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The loosely-jointed fingers on the full-length puppets proved unwieldy on the animation screen as they kept shifting when I didn’t want them to, no matter how careful I was. So instead I made a virtue of the problem, being sure to keep them moving at all times. Later, in the editing suite with Jon Street at The Moth Factory in Bristol, when we heard Matt Kaner’s music for the scene for the first time, it turned out he’d made unnerving use of plucked strings, and the effect perfectly matched the Witch’s twitching, restless hands, as though her energy couldn’t be stilled. Creepy!

Close collaboration between the participating artists was crucial on the project. From the outset I’d wanted to enrich the visual aesthetic of what I’d already created by way of the Hansel & Gretel picturebook for Random Spectacular and the toy theatre for Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop, extending my earlier ideas by inviting those whose work I greatly admire to contribute to the stage production. Phil Cooper and I had already collaborated together on the video-trailer for the Random Spectacular picturebook, for which he’d made the set models. Peter Lloyd and Jan Zalud were both familiar with my work and well-prepared for the stage production, even though it departed from much of the material I’d made for the book. I made basic design templates that we all used to stay within the parameters of how the production would look, and they ensured consistency across the board. Everything was discussed at length. It was teamwork from start to finish.

 

 

Supervising Designer and Animator – Clive Hicks-Jenkins

Shadow Puppets – Peter Lloyd

Models, Background Paintings and Assistant Animator – Philip Cooper

Tabletop Puppets – Jan Zaud

Puppet Wardrobe by Oonagh Creighton-Griffiths

 

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Above: photograph courtesy of Philip Cooper

 

The Mechanical Bird

 

The Mechanical Bird in the Wooden Forest from the national tour of Hansel & Gretel. The footage was filmed at Ty Isaf by Pete Telfer. It was a last minute addition to that day’s shooting schedule, as I thought of it as a possibility for the production only when I passed the bird sitting on its shelf and looking at me.

On stage the film is screened at the moment that the children realise birds have pecked at the crumbs Hansel has laid as a trail to find the way home. The clockwork toy is Russian, made at the Lenin Memorial Factory in Moscow, and it sings loudly thanks to a bellows concealed inside the casing. It’s a clever thing and charming, if a tad shrill. On stage, however, its song is replaced courtesy of the Goldfield Ensemble playing Matthew Kaner’s hauntingly beautiful music.

4 * Review for Hansel & Gretel from Rian Evans in The Guardian

Parabola Arts Centre, Cheltenham


In this striking modern update, set to words by Simon Armitage and music by Matthew Kaner, the children are refugees and the fairytale is a nightmare

Pulling all the strings … Hansel & Gretel.
Pulling all the strings … Hansel & Gretel with Diana Ford and Lizzie Wort. Photograph: Spencer McPherson/Still Moving Media

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 Cheltenham 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

Touring until 4 November.

 

 

Lichfield Festival ‘Young Critics Review’ of Hansel & Gretel

The unique and intriguing story telling of Hansel and Gretel at the Lichfield studio combined together the art forms of puppetry, music, poetry, projections and song in a bewitching sensory masterpiece.

What struck me most about the performance was the beautifully winding language  written by the poet, Simon Armitage. The day “stagnated to evening” then “curdled to dusk”. This is one of the many uses of dark imagery which created the sinister mood and captured the attention of the audience by its almost hypnotic verse.

One part which I did not expect from Hansel and Gretel was the incorporation of humour. When Gretel begins to believe that the old woman may eat them, an image of a soup can with ‘Heinzel und Gretel’ appears on the projection behind. This was definitely unexpected, and, in response, a shaky laughter sounded from the audience!

I also loved the interaction between the narrator and the puppets themselves. When Hansel decided to steal a loaf of bread the speaker read: “It’s theft”. There was a sudden complete silence; the puppets suddenly swerved their heads around to look at the narrator in shock. Unlike most performances the usual barrier between performer and story teller wasn’t afraid to be crossed adding distinctiveness and character.

Props were effectively used, turning unsuspecting, innocent events into something more sinister. As soon as Hansel began to follow his trail of crumbs, clockwork cockerels were used, ‘pecking’ at the ground with an eerie repetitive motion. The puppets themselves also looked like something from a haunted house, setting me on edge from the very beginning, the screen behind enlarging their image in black and white.

I thought the music echoed the script well; when Hansel and Gretel found the house of sweets in the woods, the music became hectic and crazed, a xylophone highlighted the children’s desperation to eat as much sugar as possible. Trees were knocked over and part of the house collapsed. Again, this performance changes the common perception of joy in this scene to a slow drunkenness as the puppets devour more and more sweets.

The piece was also very abstract – instead of a puppet of an evil old woman, the single claw of a bird was shown behind, beckoning to Hansel and Gretel. The parents were shown as hunched figures in aboriginal styled patterns – all of which added further interest for the audience.

This intensive, visual performance of Hansel and Gretel, thundered with creativity, was very tightly executed and left me feeling overwhelmed and in awe of what this talented ensemble had achieved.

By Emily Robson

Deadline Hell

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Above: rendering of a double-spread endpaper for the new Hansel & Gretel book

Project: illustrating the poem of Hansel & Gretel by Simon Armitage, first commissioned as the ‘libretto’ to composer Matthew Kaner’s music. (The Goldfield Productions stage version of Hansel & Gretel, directed by me, is currently on a national tour.)

Below: the woodcutter and his wife rendered on layers of lithography film

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Publisher: the brilliant Design for Today.

Brief: to make a beautiful illustrated first edition of Simon Armitage’s poem, that while visually referencing the visual aesthetic of the current stage production, is a reading experience in contrast to a listening one.

Below: still from a stop-motion animation sequence that’s projected during performances of the work

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It’s also the opportunity to work with a publisher with whom I share a love of vintage illustration and the art of lithography.

Below: trial image for the book, produced on layers of lithography film

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Technique: images made on paper and lithography film, to be printed in layers of colour.

Deadline: don’t ask.

Below: cavalry-officer rendered on layers of lithography film

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People ask me: “How many illustrations in the book? How many have you completed? How long will it take to finish?” (Do they imagine this helps?) Each day I strike a bit more off the to-do list. I’ve divided the project into quarters, the idea being that it’s marginally less pressurising to look each day at the more manageable goal of a section of the book, than the dauntingly long list of images for the entire damned thing. And I’m working in order of chronology, from the front endpapers and title page through to the acknowledgements and ‘end’ endpapers, to halt the tyranny of vacillating over what to do when I walk into the studio of a morning, and to even out the work process so that I don’t draw all my favourite bits first.

Q: Will it be done in time?

A: Of course.

Q: How is this to be achieved?

A: I don’t know. Magic?

Q: Are you confident that you won’t overshoot the deadline?

A: Absolutely. Pretty much. At least I am when people leave me alone to get on with it, instead of offering unasked for estimations based on how long it takes me to make a single drawing and then multiplying that X 40. Well, 40-ish. At this point I should add that Joe the publisher never asks these questions. Joe is unfailingly supportive and enthusiastic, there when I need him and not in the least pressurising.

Q: Are you pleased with what you’re producing?

A: You bet.

Q: What are you going to do when it’s done?

A: Sleep!

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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.