Looking at my shelves I realise how fortunate I’ve been as an artist to have collaborated on a good many interesting book projects. At the start of my career as a painter, Nicolas and Frances McDowall of Old Stile Press gave me multiple opportunities with their invitations to collaborate on volumes of poetry, plus the covers of two bibliographies. For them I made two volumes of works by the sixteenth century poet Richard Barnfield, The Affectionate Shepherd and the Barnfield Sonnets, plus The Mare’s Tale by Catriona Urquhart, an anthology of poems which memorialised the life of her late friend – and my father – Trevor.
At Old Stile I produced an illustrated edition of Peter Shaffer’s iconic play, Equus, which led to a commission from Penguin Classics to contribute an image for the cover of a new edition of the play in 2006, still in print today.
While at OSP I learned craft on the projects Nicolas chose for me, it would be fair to say it was in the books springing from my creative enthusiasms as an artist, that I’d find the most satisfying experiences. Simon Armitage’s 2018 revision of his translation of the medieval poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight for Faber & Faber gave the opportunity to use the fourteen-print series on the theme I’d made with Dan Bugg at Penfold Press, edited into illustrations for the edition. That led to a second collaboration with Simon of a much-loved fairytale for publisher Design for Today, Hansel & Gretel: a Nightmare in Eight Scenes, which won me the 2020 V&A Illustrated Book Award.
Next came a second book at Faber with Simon, by now appointed Poet Laureate. The Owl and the Nightingale was conceived as a companion volume to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and like its predecessor was a ‘translation’ of a medieval text.
Joe Pearson at Design for Today makes extraordinarily beautiful books which honour the great traditions of illustration, and after Hansel & Gretel in 2019, he invited me to make a child-size ‘pamphlet’ book, The Bird House, which enabled me to indulge my love of toy birds and toy buildings. No text with this one, just page after page of pictures.
Throughout the pandemic lockdowns I worked on my second ‘fairytale’ project for Design for Today, Beauty & Beast, in a reinvention by poet Olivia McCannon. Our starting points had been the eighteenth century French novella of the fairytale and the 1946 film La Belle et la Bête by poet/artist/director Jean Cocteau. However in Olivia’s hands the source materials were thrillingly transformed, underpinned by 21st century concerns about global warming and the destruction of environment.
For fifteen years I’ve been producing cover artwork and page decorations for the American poet and novelist, Marly Youmans. My most recent work for her has been a collection of poems under the title The Book of the Red King, and her novella-length narrative poem, Seren of the Wildwood.
This year I produced my second cover for Penguin, an edition of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, working with Penguin/Random House art director, Suzanne Dean.
Over the years I haven’t seen myself as being an illustrator so much as an artist with a wide range of interests, among which books are admittedly a bit of an obsession. Some of the book projects have been ones I’ve instigated and brought to completion with the help of others. Joe at Design for Today has been my major facilitator for the most significant ones, while others have come via publishing commissions. But however made, the books produced in collaboration with writers I greatly admire, such as Marly, Olivia and Simon, often thereafter cast their influences further into my practices as an artist. I have been majorly influenced and fuelled by poetry. It’s a persistent thread throughout my work at the easel, on the stage and in books. The past year has seen me working for Folio Society on a new illustrated edition of Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf, due out this summer. The project just dropped into my lap, brought to me by Folio Society art editor Raquel Leis Allion. I’d long wanted to work with the text, so it’s been a bit of a dream come true.
In 2016 Random Spectacular published a picture-book of my dark re-working of the fairy tale Hansel & Gretel. There was no text, save what I hand-lettered into the illustrations.
The following year Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop in Covent Garden commissioned a toy theatre kit from me, based on the book.
In response to the two publications, Goldfield Productions engaged me to direct and design a stage production. Hansel & Gretel: a Nightmare in Eight Scenes with music by Matthew Kaner and a libretto by Simon Armitage, was created for a chamber consort, a narrator/singer and two puppeteers, and it premiered at the 2018 Cheltenham Music Festival followed by a five month tour.
A matinee at the Barbican was recorded and broadcast by BBC Radio 3 Christmas week 2018.
The following year Design for Today published a hardback edition of Simon Armitage’s libretto that I illustrated, and in 2020 it won me the V&A Illustrated Book Award.
In 2023 there’s to be a major exhibition of my work on the theme of Hansel & Gretel at Oriel Myrddin in Carmarthen. The exhibition is to include original artworks made for the several publications, my project books, maquettes and preparatory works.
There will be many items from the stage production, including shadow puppets created by Peter Lloyd, set models built by Phil Cooper, vintage toys that I loaned to the production and a huge doll’s house, the inside of which I decorated and filmed to represent the interior of the Witch’s lair.
Permission for a loan to the gallery of the puppets of Hansel and Gretel designed by me for the production, has been turned down by Goldfield’s Artistic Director, Kate Romano. She gave dislike of me as her reason. Given that the costs of designing and making the puppets had been paid for out of an Arts Council grant, and given the budget was so tight that I personally paid a costume designer to create a wardrobe for them, her decision seems at best ill-judged. As the director of a charitable trust which has been extensively funded from philanthropic organisations, anyone might expect better from her than this. The exhibition will be especially appealing to children, and for a registered charity to deny a ‘museums accredited’ gallery the opportunity to inspire young minds with such beautiful examples of the art of puppet-making, is not merely perplexing, but frankly shameful.
I approached the Chair of the Goldfield Trust, Caroline Clegg, hoping that she might persuade Kate to change her mind and save the company from public scrutiny into a matter that looks very bad for both of them. It would be hard to tell from Caroline’s e-mail that she and I know each other, having both worked on the production for months when she was appointed by Kate as dramaturg to it. Weirdly, both her e-mails to me make it sound as though we’ve never met before. This has added another layer of the surreal to what has frequently felt decidedly strange when dealing with Kate Romano and Caroline Clegg. Here’s Caroline’s second e-mail to me:
Dear Mr Hicks-Jenkins,
In response to your recent request the Trustees of Goldfield Productions support Ms Romano’s decision not to loan the Hansel and Gretel puppets.
Ms Caroline Clegg
as Chair of Goldfield Productions
Why am I writing about all this now, so long after the event? Certainly not to persuade Kate Romano to change her mind about loaning the puppets. Over four years I’ve several times held out a hand of reconciliation in the hope of encouraging her to set aside resentments so we may together protect the legacy of what we made. I was and remain proud of my work on the stage production of Hansel & Gretel, and want to be able to share what was achieved in the exhibition. However everything I’ve written to Kate has gone unacknowledged and unanswered. There’s been not one e-mail reply to any of my attempts to lower the temperature of her antagonism. She is down a bunker in this matter, refusing to engage, and such behaviour in the world the way it is right now, is not a good look for anyone, let alone an arts administrator. Today I’m writing this because many are beginning to ask whether the puppets are going to be in the exhibition. Luckily because we have an ample record of the puppets in drawings, photographs and videos, they will be seen, though not be present.
It would be easier in many ways just to make a simple excuse for their absences which skates around what’s happened, but I see no reason to do that when Kate Romano and Caroline Clegg should clearly be the ones to explain why they’ve made the decision to hide the puppets from public view.
Simon’s reinvention of the fairy tale, is eerily prescient of what we’re seeing now in Ukraine. The puppets would have meant a great deal to many visitors had Kate Romano found it in her heart to lend them to the gallery, but she did not. The puppets were conceptualised and designed by me, their making supervised by me, in part funded by me and their performances on stage, shaped by me together with puppeteers Di and Lizzie. Kate’s reason for refusing the gallery loan appears to be all about personal enmity, which is troubling in a CEO in the performing arts. Anyone who feels that she made a decision that requires explanation, might take it up with her.
The film was made and originally released in five one-act instalments at Instagram. We’d intended it to be a promotion for the just published toy theatre and an encouragement for would-be performers, to show them what might be achieved with the model. However it swiftly evolved into something that was a creative project in its own right, and as David and I planned and worked, our ambitions for the film became greater.
Even though we elaborated on the presentation in ways that were clearly only possible in the realms of digital animation, we felt that the overall effect would be to encourage anyone performing the toy play to be inventive and give creativity a free hand.
I’d asked Olivia to give me a play-script that incorporated all the traditions I associate with nineteenth century toy theatre productions: actors directly addressing the audience, rhyming verses, jokes, songs, political references, allegorical characters and opportunities for sumptuous stage effects. But it was important too to have that sense of the slightly bonkers that I see in just about every historic toy theatre play script. Fairy tale is the right material to be allowed its head in matters of strangeness. Too much sanitising and it loses character. Beauty and the Beast as a narrative can be so much more than is usually allowed. Olivia has followed the threads of earlier iterations, but has reinvigorated the tale by making climate change and pollution the culprits for Beast’s condition, rather than a dark fairy’s curse. Moreover Beast is allowed to be more thoroughly himself than when the storyline moves toward a princely restoration. (When Jean Cocteau gave a first showing of his film La Belle et la Bête (1946) to its cast and technicians, he invited his friend Marlene Dietrich as his guest. As the end credits rolled she could be heard in the darkened viewing-room loudly wailing:
“Ou est ma Bête?”
Most audiences ever since have agreed with her.
The Beauty & Beast Team:
Animated Film: David Slack & Clive Hicks-Jenkins
Script: Olivia McCannon
Original Music for Time for a Change of Heart: Paul Sartin
Narrator: Jennifer Castle
Jennifer Castle’s Portrait Photography: Ross Boyask
Accompaniment for Time for a Change of Heart: Tricia Kerr Mullen
Adapted from the Beauty & Beast Toy Theatre published by Joe Pearson at Design for Today
The Design for Today Beauty & Beast Toy Theatre (see above) may purchased online, direct from the publisher:
All toy theatre is an abbreviation, by reason of the medium. Fifteen minutes is about the maximum length a toy theatre performance can sustain. However the complete fairy tale as retold by Olivia McCannon in Beauty & Beast, illustrated by me throughout, is to be published by Design for Today in Spring this year.
All life is light and shadow and the struggle to hold those two in balance. I know that at the extremes, my preoccupations can seem hard to make sense of. One moment artworks I know viewers can find hard to look at, and the next, animations in which the characters of Victorian Harlequinade spring to joyful life. Night versus day, dusk versus dawn, grief versus joy.
At the private view of my Autumn 2021 Martin Tinney Gallery exhibition, a man I barely knew began quizzing me. Gesturing to the walls teeming with illustrations for Simon Armitage’s about-to-be-published The Owl & the Nightingale, he said “So you don’t paint anymore.” (Note the statement, not a question.) I’m always taken aback when someone is challenging almost from the first sentence. I didn’t want to defend myself to a man putting words into my mouth, so I replied simply, “I paint every day.” He carried on regardless, again gesturing to the walls. “Yeah but not REAL paintings any more, you know…” and here he grappled for words … “… the BIG ones!” Me, fixing his eye. ”I paint the things that I care about, and I always have. And now you’ll excuse me.”
The first subject matter that brought me serious attention as an artist was The Mare’s Tale in 2001. As an exploration of a nightmarish experience in my father’s childhood he carried with him for more than eighty years, the work has often been described by others as ‘the son’s exploration of the father’s trauma’. It was partially that, but it was also grief, not only for my dad, but for the many of my family and friends who had gone.
In Simon Armitage’s extraordinary reworking of Hansel & Gretel, the children’s parents are not the malign mother and weak father of the Grimm Brothers’ original tale. Simon sets the story in an unnamed war-torn country, and the children are not abandoned but in an act of parental desperation, directed away from home and bombings. They’re migrant children. At the end of the story they return home to find their father broken, their home in ruins and their mother, dead and buried in a coffin made from their bomb-splintered beds. When making the illustrations for the book (Design for Today, 2019) I researched, made hundreds of studies and drew on memories that are always with me.
My mother’s health had been catastrophically compromised by childhood meningitis. I think she can only have been in her thirties when she had her first heart attack, and though she lived another three decades, the steady advance of heart and organ failure was unstoppable. She was courageous and fought to be well, and there were times of respite when illness didn’t shadow her so heavily.
But in the end, it got her. In those days visiting hours in hospital were strict. No matter how ill the patient, there were no exceptions to the rules. My mother died alone in a public ward without anyone she loved to hold her hand. It was the end she feared most, and not a damned thing that we could do to stop it. We were called at the crack of dawn and raced to the hospital. It would have been kinder of the nurse to tell us the truth in the phone call. Instead we drove like maniacs only to find my mother icy-cold in her bed, having died hours earlier. My father retreated to a corridor, buried his face in an alcove and howled like a dog. I held my mother’s hand and studied her face, careworn with illness but still beautiful.
All life gets poured into my art. Here she is, recalled in the illustration in Hansel & Gretel of the dead mother in her unlined coffin, tenderly garlanded with flowers.
It’s largely forgotten these days that the actor Ralph Richardson was significant in the preservation of the toy theatre tradition. Benjamin Pollock, the last of the print-making toy theatre sellers, died in 1937. Thereafter his daughters ran the shop in Hoxton Street until damage sustained during the Blitz forced its closure.
Alan Keen, a local bookseller, together with Richardson, picked up the threads of Benjamin Pollock’s business and remaining stock, and together carried forward the tradition, enlisting practitioners of the art of toy theatre, famous artists and renowned actors to assist them. George Speaight was an historian, enthusiast and collector of toy theatre ephemera, who in 1946 published the still unsurpassed textbook of the toy theatre tradition, Toy Theatre, and he was among those Keen and Richardson worked with.
Richardson’s celebrity ensured the added lustre of luminaries such as Laurence Olivier and playwright J. B. Priestly stepping forward to promote the art of toy theatre. Olivier agreed to a toy theatre adaptation of the 1948 film of Hamlet, which he’d directed and starred in. Published by what was now being called ‘Benjamin Pollock Ltd’, the Hamlet toy theatre is a curious thing, quite wan in many ways because the ‘puppets’ are all tinted photographs of the actors from the film, while the sets are sketchy if atmospheric black and white drawings by the film’s production designer Roger Furse.
A far more lavish and full colour affair was The High Toby, with a script by J. B. Priestly and scenery and characters painted by the prominent artist, Doris Zinkeisen.
The growing cost of the book outstripped Alan Keen’s available funds, and it was done as a Puffin Cut-Out Book ‘in association’ with Benjamin Pollock Ltd. But even with these celebrity contributors, while the book is very pretty, anyone who has tried to offer a performance will know that it’s less satisfactory as a play than one might imagine given who wrote it, and though Zinkeisen’s settings and characters are lavishly detailed, she took no account of how difficult the puppets would be to cut out, massively compromised by fine details like whips, walking-canes, feathers on hats and the slenderest of wrists.
Moreover even when those hurdles had been clambered over, the characters don’t register particularly well against the backdrops, their drawing-room elegance and soft colours legislating against them. Toy theatre needs a robustness not present here, and The High Toby is toy theatre play that looks far better in the imagination, and on its pages, before scissors, paste and card have been brought into play.
Toy theatre is an art, and not just a physical reduction. A long and complex script isn’t the best accompaniment to a toy theatre performance, and scenery cannot simply be a version of what might be seen in a live theatre. There’s something like alchemy in the process of making a successful adaptation of a story to the reduced script and the reduced stage of a toy theatre. The same rules of drama don’t apply, nor do the rules of perspective used on a full-scale stage with breathing actors. The toy theatre requires its own, unique aesthetic. It’s so much better when allowed to be itself, rather than when trying too hard to ape its origins in the live theatre.
When all the components are in place and a toy theatre can be made to work, it works magnificently. But it’s a form fraught with perils, and more get it wrong than right, and always have. English toy theatre – for it was almost uniquely an English form, practiced most successfully in London, that city of many theatres and printmakers – had a period of unrivalled brilliance. When not made overly sophisticated, and when drawing on the lively tradition of the English printmakers’ ‘Actor Portraits’ of the Regency and nineteenth century, toy theatre was at its best, graphically bold and slightly bonkers. Later it became displaced largely because the far more sophisticated toy theatre imports from France and Europe were catching the eye of the public, and the meteoric rise of native toy theatre faltered when comparisons were being made to the enormously elaborate foreign imports. English Toy theatres were not subtle. They had the character of folk art, and were the perfect vehicles for barnstorming melodramas and that most unique theatrical tradition of these islands, the pantomime. (Harlequinade was a hugely popular entertainment of the English stage, and the characters of Clown, Harlequin and Columbine were endlessly reproduced in toy theatre character sheets.)
Marguerite Fawdry acquired the Pollock’s business in the 1960s, afterwards transferring it from Covent Garden to its current address in Fitzrovia, where there was room for a toy museum over the shop and a basement where the Pollock printing press and stock of engraved plates could be stored. The business has continued as a family affair, now helmed by Marguerite’s great grandson, Jack, in whom the toy theatre tradition is still alive and flourishing. There’s a Pollock’s Trust, too, to lend support to the Museum, led by Chairman Alan Powers.
I was commissioned in 2016 by Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop to design the Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop Hansel & Gretel Toy Theatre, which was published in 2017 and is still available from the shop. The project led to others, most significantly a commission to develop a new stage production of Hansel & Gretel, and in 2018 Hansel & Gretel: a Nightmare in Eight Scenes, a stage production for music ensemble, actors and puppets with a score by Matthew Kaner and a poetic text by Simon Armitage, directed by me, premiered at the Cheltenham Festival of Music before embarking on a tour. A performance of the work before an audience was recorded by BBC Radio 3 and broadcast Christmas week 2018.
In 2019 the text of Hansel & Gretel: a Nightmare in Eight Scenes was published by Design for Today in an edition illustrated by me. In 2020 I won the V&A Illustrated Book Award for my work on it.
In November 2021 Design for Today published my new toy theatre, Beauty & Beast, made in collaboration with Olivia McCannon, who wrote the script, and David W. Slack, who assisted me and designed the model.
The Beauty & Beast Toy Theatre is available from Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop in Covent Garden and Pollock’s Museum and Toyshop in Fitzrovia, and also online from:
With Olivia’s play script for the toy theatre delivered, it was time to consider who might write the music to accompany her lyrics for Beauty’s song ‘Time for a Change of Heart’, performed at the end of the play. Olivia approached her friend, musician Paul Sartin of the group Bellowhead, and to everyone’s delight, he agree to join the team.
Once his music was ready, it was time for graphic designer Laurence Beck to lay out Olivia’s play script, Paul’s arrangement for her lyrics, David’s instructions for constructing the model and my brief histories of toy theatre and the origins of Beauty and the Beast, into the booklet to accompany the model. The 10 construction-cards to cut out and make the toy theatre, scenery and characters of the production, together with the 24 page booklet, were designed to fit into a 23 x 25 cms folder where the scenery, puppets and script could be stored for safe keeping once the theatre was made. All that remained was for the many elements of the toy theatre to be printed and packed ready for sale.
To promote what was about to be published, with Joe’s agreement David and I set about producing an animation video for the Beauty & Beast Toy Theatre, to be shown at YouTube and on various social media platforms. The plan was to offer a condensed visual account of Olivia’s scenario set to music, and as he’d already played such a significant part in creating the toy theatre, David was perfectly placed for making the animated version of it. With the animation prepared, everything was set for launch. We would have our beautiful toy theatre out in good time for the Christmas market.
Still we weren’t through. David and I had been wondering how we might further promote the toy theatre, and what alternatives might be open to us if we weren’t able to have a pre-Christmas live event to which an audience could be invited.
A broadcast film of a performance might be the solution, but even that could be difficult to organise given the current circumstances. So we began to plan a film in which all the contributing creators could work at a distance from each other. The first and most urgent requirement was to find an actor to read Olivia’s play script, and moreover one who would seize the multiple opportunities afforded by it. Here were poetry, humour, menace and crackling atmosphere, and we needed an actor skilled on multiple levels to give a nuanced and mesmerising performance. Luckily I knew who would deliver all that for us in bucketloads, and Jennifer Castle became the final creative talent to join the Beauty & Beast team, alongside Ross Boyask, who undertook to both record the audio tracks of Jennifer’s performance and take the many portrait shots of her that we needed in order to incorporate her into the film.
The work is underway and further announcements will be forthcoming before too long. Here’s a toy theatre that is not just a desirable object, but one that comes with all the online creative encouragement and inspiration that anyone could wish for. I’m enormously proud of the team that made it. My thanks to:
Joe Pearson at Design for Today
David W. Slack
The Design for Today Beauty & Beast Toy Theatre is available
It all began earlier this year with the Hansel & Gretel Toy Theatre I’d designed in 2017 for Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop. David W. Slack and I didn’t know each other, but exchanged a flurry of messages at Instagram about how he was planning to adapt his newly acquired Hansel & Gretel model to include a curved stage-front. Before we knew it we were in regular contact, fuelled by the fact we’re both painters and by our shared passion for Toy Theatre. I was working flat out on the illustrations for my next book with publisher Design for Today, Beauty & Beast, in collaboration with writer Olivia McCanon, and David and I talked about the evolving images for it. In photographs, his finished model of the Pollock’s theatre I’d designed was sharp and meticulous. The man really knew how to cut and construct a toy theatre.
I had a notion to make a very simple toy theatre as a promotion for Beauty & Beast. It would have to be simple because I had no spare time to work on it. Before I tried the idea out on my publisher, Joe, I confided in David about it, casually wondering whether if he had the time he might consider helping me out. As it was going to be a modest project and would hopefully not take up too much of his time, it could be fun. Beyond the sense of ease that made online conversations between us so relaxed, I had the strongest feeling that we needed to collaborate. It was almost an imperative. Luckily he felt the same way and enthusiastically leapt in.
The division of labour evolved with complete ease. I made roughs while David worked confidently to produce the optimum design for the model. Ideas flowed smoothly. We were so attuned that we developed a pattern allowing each of us creative freedom. Once the proscenium arch design had been settled on, David produced prototype toy stages at extraordinary speed, each version improving on the last. By this time he was leading with the design work, briefing me on what I needed to be making. He was drafting scenery, too, often using my completed illustrations made for the book as initial sources. I was having to fit all this between my daily schedule of illustrations for the main book, though things became simpler when David began sending me templates so all I had to do was fill in the shapes with drawing, knowing the ‘fit’ had already been worked out.
David’s enthusiasm for the project meant that he was forever coming up with ideas to ‘improve’ outcomes, which meant the dawning realisation for both of us that it was a rather more complete production than we’d anticipated at the outset. Olivia McCannon was enlisted to write the script, a task she undertook with good grace even though it greatly added to her already overburdened work-load. It wasn’t to be a straight adaptation of her beautiful text for the book, but a clever reinvention of a nineteenth century toy theatre pantomime, ingenious and slightly mad. I broke the news to Joe Pearson with some trepidation that we’d gained more construction pages than originally estimated, and that moreover several of them required printing on both sides, which would require meticulous alignment by the printer. Joe took it all in his stride and began costing.
The script was still being written and so we had no idea how many pages it might fill. We began considering the matter of the binding for the toy theatre book, so as for it to be simple to take apart. I’m pretty certain it was David who first suggested we consider not binding, but offering loose construction sheets in a folder, and Joe who came up with the idea of something like an old-fashioned double-LP cover, with half-wallets inside. These were exciting developments because they meant the toy theatre would be unique in its presentation. Joe felt a separate ‘chapbook’ for the script and instructions would be the way forward, slipped into one of the pockets of the folder. The idea of a script in miniature for toy theatre performances was lovely, and mirrored the toy theatre scripts of the nineteenth century. Everyone was in a frenzy of invention and creativity.
Today I take pleasure in announcing that Jennifer Castle has joined the Beauty & Beast Toy Theatre team, and that we are working together to create a filmed performance of Olivia McCannon’s wonderful play-script with Jennifer giving life to all the roles, accompanied by the toy theatre in action. In a curtain-raiser to all that excitement, Jennifer and I have been in conversation.
Clive: Jennifer, for the past nine months the artwork, model construction, script and graphic design for the Beauty & Beast Toy Theatre have been gently evolving into the product we have today. You’ve come to the project only recently, but from our conversations I’m getting the distinct impression you’ve hit the ground running, and that in part must be to do with the script by Olivia McCannon. What were your feelings when you read it?
Jennifer: Right from the beginning, I suspected that Olivia McCannon and I might be close together in age. So many of what at first glance might seem to be ‘throwaway’ lines resonate deeply with me. For example, Beauty herself, so often portrayed as the noble ingenue, in Olivia’s hands becomes a somewhat exasperated, fully formed young woman cognisant of the ridiculousness of her situation. Her brusque ‘we know why I’m here, let’s not waste time getting up to speed’ attitude, combined with the innocence, intricacy and beauty of the poetry itself delighted me. Yet Beauty remains recognisably the same character we have all come across as children for 300 years. Thanks to Olivia’s writing, I feel free to explore the character of Beauty, all of her anger as well as her inherent goodness, without worrying that she will be unrecognisable to anyone. From a technical point of view, in terms of the actual playscript; it is subtle and wicked, the work of a poet at the very top of her game, and I feel a keen sense of responsibility to do the rhythm of the work justice.
Clive: My friend Simon Callow, who has a fair number of one-man shows under his belt, once told me that the thing he missed most when performing alone, was the camaraderie of the team and the liveliness of a rehearsal room filled with people and ideas. How do you feel about the fact that you’ll be performing all of the roles in this short play?
Jennifer: I will be performing all the roles in the play. So I will play! As a child, I didn’t have any problems holding a doll in each hand and improvising full blown dramatic confrontations that would put a soap opera to shame. It’s been a while, I grant you, but if a toy theatre can’t help me back into the unselfconscious headspace of a child with a couple of Barbies, I think I may be in the wrong profession! Joking aside, I am happy to say that I don’t consider this to be a ‘one-woman show’ at all. I’ll have the beautiful characters written by Olivia, drawn by you, and brought to stunning animated life by David W. Slack right alongside me. When we first spoke on the telephone about this project, you told me that in a previous collaboration with Simon Armitage of Hansel & Gretel, what had impressed you most in a live reading of the piece by him was that he didn’t attempt to ‘do’ voices for each role, but simply read the lines in his own voice and let the characters speak for themselves. I found that really interesting.
Clive: The pandemic has changed the conditions of work for all of us. But because I live in a far- flung corner of west Wales, long before social distancing catapulted just about everyone into working through the mediums of email, messaging and ‘Zoom’, I’d been forging collaborative relationships via social media. My close collaboration with Dan Bugg of the Penfold Press has for the past five years been carried out almost entirely through Facebook and Insta messaging, and although David W. Slack and I have been in extensive daily contact as he designed the Beauty & Beast Toy Theatre model, we’ve never met. (A fact I find hard to believe because we feel very close.) The entertainment industry has been hard hit by Covid, and particularly live theatre which effectively closed down completely. How have things been for you as an actor? Have unexpected ways of working – and unexpected projects – emerged out of all this strangeness?
Jennifer: Can I tell you something? As an actor, the most unexpected thing for me was how I came to view NOT working. When we think of actors, we naturally think of household names. But only 2% of professional actors make a living from the profession and 90% are out of work at any one time! So when the pandemic hit, I suddenly didn’t have to go through the exhausting ritual actors face every time we meet casual acquaintances or family: answering the question “So what are you acting in now?” with a self deprecating shrug and a “well….” It was such a relief. Of course I got fed up of sitting on the balcony reading comics within about 2 weeks, so I and my fellow actor friends soon found each other online and began planning for the moment lockdown ended! I wrote my first script, participated in Zoom script readings for friends and rediscovered a desire to get out there and just DO something that had been waning in the couple of years prior to 2020. Though restrictions are now easing, I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that the future of film and tv castings is going to be ‘self-taped’ auditions, which may sound convenient but instead of getting to meet and connect with a casting director, getting a feel for the room and trying a scene out a few times with feedback, I now have to film myself in a bathroom and hope for the best, which can sometimes be a frustrating experience! But on the whole? I was so happy when productions were allowed to start up again. Remote work can be valuable and productive, but as an actor, NOTHING beats human contact when it comes to creating. What about you? As an artist, do you think that you would still live in ‘far-flung West Wales’ if you didn’t have the internet or would you need to live closer to an artistic hub?
Clive: Moving to Ty Isaf fifteen years ago coincided with the burgeoning of the Internet and the appearance of social media. Facebook was just taking off. Almost from the first week here our connections with the outside world began to grow. Of course the world managed to function perfectly well pre-Internet, but my re-location to a far-flung corner of Wales has been founded from the start on good, strong connections with my collaborators through social media messaging services, e-mails and much later, Zoom. How would I manage without these connections? I suspect not at all well. I love peace and quiet and even isolation in bite-size chunks. But I am collaborative by nature and I’m social by habit, so I need a balance. Before Covid Ty Isaf had been a bit of a creative hub, with my collaborators frequently spending time here so as to be able to work in close contact. We’ve held early brain-storming production meetings on performative works here, and I have a pretty good pop-up animation studio that I can fit into the dining-room when occasion demands.
Although you and I met just the once, several years ago in Cardiff at the home of a mutual friend, you’ve come to this project via a post you made at Facebook (social media, again) that caught my eye and got me thinking.
Jennifer: You have generously omitted the fact that my bad day was caused by my absolutely bombing in an audition that morning! I took to Facebook to admit as such and received a surprisingly sympathetic response. We actors rarely admit our failures because like sharks, theatre folk can smell blood in the water.
Clive: It must have been a slightly strange experience having someone coming at you out of the blue with a hard-to-describe and evolving project after you’d admitted on social media to having had a bad day.
Jennifer: If you were reading a novel, and the protagonist, dejected after yet another failed audition, received a message from a famous artist telling her that he’d like to offer her a chance at a challenging project because her honesty impressed him and she replied “Eh….nah”, how far across the room do you think you would throw the book?
Clive: I take your point. Nevertheless, you took a leap of faith and engaged with me where many would have balked, and I appreciate that.
Jennifer: Gosh that’s interesting that you would say that. Who would balk? Should I have balked? In all seriousness, you not only took a chance on me, you’ve shown nothing but faith in me from the start of this journey. I’m not taking that for granted.
Clive: Are you generally a cautious or adventurous person?
Jennifer: Yes, sometimes cautious and sometimes adventurous.
Clive: David W. Slack and I have a passion for the work of David Firmin and Oliver Postgate, who were the creators at Smallfilms of Clangers, Noggin the Nog and Bagpuss. When I described to you that Bagpuss was an inspiration for the low-tech way in which we hoped to make the film, you yelled with delight and enthusiasm. Did that cinch the deal for you?
Jennifer: I was already enthusiastic at the thought of a toy theatre, but the old stop motion beauty of Bagpuss is timeless and perfect and wonderful. It’s so very British – comforting and sometimes uncomfortable at the same time. I can’t wait to see what we come up with together. I’m excited and nervous, comfortable and pushed beyond my comfort zone – I’m ready to be Bagpussed!
Clive Hicks-Jenkins and Jennifer Castle were in conversation. The top image is by David W. Slack, with special thanks to Ross Boyask for Jennifer Mullen’s portrait shot.
The Design for Today Beauty & Beast Toy Theatre is available:
In the first six months of Lockdown I turned my attention to several outstanding book projects, including the commission from Faber & Faber to make illustrations for Simon Armitage’s new translation of The Owl & the Nightingale (see image above) and a small picture-book, The Bird House, for Design for Today. With those completed I turned my attention to a subject that had long held fascination for me, and with a commitment to publish from Design for Today, I invited the poet Olivia McCannon to explore with me the fairy tale Beauty & the Beast.
Olivia and I used many literary and cinematic sources for our work, most significantly Jean Cocteau’s 1946 film of La Belle et la Bête, and the result of what we’ve made together, Beauty & Beast, will be out later this year.
New works from Clive Hicks-Jenkins: Adventures in Books, will showcase my illustration work of the past couple of years, including artworks for The Owl & the Nightingale, Beauty & Beast and the Beauty & Beast Toy Theatre, also published by Design for Today.
On Friday our friends Sarah Joseph and her son Sam came to Ty Isaf to be with Peter and me for my birthday. All of us now twice vaccinated yet still super cautious, we sat distanced in the dining room while Sarah and Sam pored over the Beauty and Beast drawings. (Soon to be dismantled from their hard-cover sketchbooks before scanning for the publisher and thereafter framing for the October book launch and Martin Tinney Gallery exhibition.)
With windows and doors open to a bracingly cool breeze, Sarah and Sam worked with admirable slowness through each of the – to date – forty illustrations. It was something Sarah and I had done regularly with her husband James throughout the long months of creating Hansel & Gretel, the publishing of which by Design for Today we were able to push through before James’ death in 2019, so that he was able to see what he had watched being made.
Before even the first studies had been made for Beauty and Beast, James quizzed me over how long the book might take, as he had plans to lobby his oncologist for more time in order to be able to be with us throughout the project. That was not to be – as he well knew – though he liked to pretend otherwise.
Long ago, when James had been a stage manager, and I a choreographer, we had been friends and co-workers travelling the world together. In time the habit had grown between us of him being my advisor in all things related to music. His knowledge was encyclopaedic and his skill as a musician ran deep. Throughout the preparations and rehearsals for the music theatre production of Hansel & Gretel that preceded the published edition of Simon Armitage’s libretto, James and I discussed the themes and studied the score together, and his insights brought depth and nuance to my understanding and direction of the piece. Through the incredible determination and support of his family he was even able to be present at the premiere of the work at the 2018 Cheltenham Music Festival, in his wheelchair, and loving every moment of the evening.