The Serpent’s Bite: a natural history of the witch. Part 2

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The picturebook of Hansel & Gretel was only partway finished when Louise Heard of Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop and I began to have discussions about the adaptation of it into a toy theatre kit. However, when Louise saw the full extent of the graphic horrors on display in my illustrations for the fairytale, she thought them too dark for the Pollock’s style, and so I went off to try and figure how to adapt the imagery for her. There were no doubts that my original witch with her wormy nasal cavity, would have to to be toned down!

As a preparation to the job ahead, I invented a ‘back-story’ for the toy theatre design. In the picturebook the children, having survived their run-in with the carnivorous and predatory witch, return home to discover that in their absence their father has murdered their mother with an axe! (The book ends with the grisly truth revealed in an image of the ghost of the mother turning up with the father’s axe still embedded in her spine!)

The prequel to the toy theatre design is that the children have run off to the big city to fall in with a disreputable troupe of actors. Persuaded by an unscrupulous producer to sign over to him the stage, film and publishing rights to their story, Hansel and Gretel end up in ‘Victorian’ costumes playing themselves in a pantomime version of their adventures sweetened and given a good dusting of showbiz glitter! Their feckless father and cruel mother are reshaped by the script as being poor though caring, while the role of the witch is given to a ‘character’ actor better known for playing demon kings and therefore well experienced in eliciting boos and hisses from the crowd!

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The re-shaping of the picturebook witch for the the cut-out-and-assemble toy theatre, was really just a matter of simplification, dressing her in red for maximum impact and giving her a striped cat. However the pointed artificial nose of her picturebook predecessor remained, though as a part of the actor’s ‘make-up’ rather than the prosthetic that disguised something unspeakable beneath! The Pollock’s witch neither flies nor grows fangs, but she rants and raves and stomps about to great effect, and just as in the original Grimm Brothers’ version of the story, imprisons the children and prepares to cook them, though of course it’s her who ends up in the oven!

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The Benjamin Pollock’s Hansel & Gretel Toy Theatre Kit, may be purchased

HERE

There is also a delightful Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop pop-up Hansel & Gretel card available, based on the toy theatre design and available

HERE

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By kind permission of  Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop, The Hansel & Gretel Toy Theatre makes a brief guest appearance in the current music/theatre touring production of Hansel & Gretel, with words by Simon Armitage and music by Matthew Kaner played by the Goldfield Ensemble. I supervised the designs, working closely with Phil Cooper (models and scenic painting), Peter Lloyd (shadow puppets) and Jan Zalud (puppet maker), and I directed the production.

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.

 

 

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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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

 

Hansel & Gretel On Stage

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I’m pleased to at long last announce my collaboration with producer Kate Romano of Goldfield Productions on a new adaptation for the stage of Hansel & Gretel, with a spectacularly innovative poetic text by Simon Armitage, and music by composer Matthew Kaner.

Several years ago Kate visited me in at my studio when I was working on, among other things, a picture book of Hansel & Gretel. She’d come to me about another project, but in the end it was the picture book that stuck in her mind, and shortly thereafter she returned with the notion of making a stage production based on the story of the children lost in the wood.

As producer Kate brought composer Matthew Kaner to the project. I realised I’d recently been listening to Matt’s music when he was BBC Radio 3’s Embedded Composer during their 70th anniversary season. Matt, Kate and I met up in London to discuss the project the very day that the Hansel & Gretel picture book was being launched by Random Spectacular. We began to talk about a librettist. Simon Armitage’s name quickly came up, as he and I were already in conversation about illustrations for the revision and republishing of his translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. (Forthcoming from Faber & Faber later this year.) In due course, he was approached by Kate, and after a meeting with the team to discuss ideas, he joined us.

I’m visual supervisor and director to the production, and I’ll be working closely with Caroline Clegg, who’s been charged with the dramaturgy. (Dramaturgy is an alchemical art, hard to pin down with clarity, but basically making sure the many threads of the production pull together as planned to create a coherent whole.)

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The visual aesthetic of the project has radically changed from when I made the Hansel & Gretel picture book for Random Spectacular and the Hansel & Gretel Toy Theatre kit commissioned by Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop, with Simon’s extraordinary re-imagining of the story taking us in entirely new directions. I’ve come to view this latest incarnation as the final piece of a trilogy, in which the same story is interpreted in three entirely different ways.
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Above, the picture book of Hansel & Gretel (in a special binding made for me by bookbinder, Christopher Shaw), and below, the Benjamin Pollock’s Hansel & Gretel Toy Theatre that I designed for Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop.
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I’m working closely with artist Philip Cooper, who’s producing the sinister building-block sets that will be projected onto a screen during performances. (Philip was previously my collaborator on the animated trailer we made for the Hansel & Gretel picture book.) With our shared love of Neo-Romanticism and German Expressionism – he moves easily between working in the UK and his home in Berlin – Phil and I share a visual aesthetic that means we collaborate very comfortably together.

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Artist, Peter Lloyd, is creating the most extraordinary shadow-puppets. He and I have an interesting way of working. I produce rough sketches and an open brief of how I want a character shaped and characterised, and then Peter runs with the idea, elaborating and adding layers of further detailing. If I’m the director setting out how I see the role, Peter is the casting-agent bringing me the perfect actor! Except he’s a casting agent who ‘makes’ the actors, the Baron von Frankenstein in our company of creators! The final stage will be when I stop-motion animate Peter’s shadow creatures into life.

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I’ll be working with my long-time film-maker and collaborator Pete Telfer of Culture Colony on the animation sequences. Pete and I have been working together for over a decade. He’s filmed and assisted me in the editing of countless projects, including The Soldier’s Tale for the forthcoming Música en Segura festival in Andalusia, and the animated book-trailer for the Random Spectacular Hansel & Gretel picture book.

 

 

The onstage puppets for the production are being made by the wonderful Jan Zalud, who I’ve been aching to work with for many years.

Below: Designs I’ve made to guide Jan in the making of our Hansel and Gretel tabletop-puppets.

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For this project we’ve assembled a wonderful team. The production premieres at the Cheltenham Festival in July.

Touring dates (further information & ticket details to follow) 

  • Cheltenham Festival WORLD PREMIERE  – 7th July 2018 
  • Lichfield Festival ‘book at bedtime’ Lichfield Guildhall  – 13th July 2018
  • Lichfield Festival matinee Lichfield Guildhall  – 14th July 2018
  • Three Choirs Festival  – 29th July 2018
  • Oxford Contemporary Music  – 14th September 2018
  • Barbican Milton Court Concert Hall Schools Matinee – 12th October 2018
  • Barbican Milton Court Concrt Hall – LONDON PREMIERE – 12th October 2018
  • Canterbury Festival  Colyer -Fergusson Concert Hall  – 21st October 2018
  • Bath Spa University  – Michael Tippett Centre – 24th October 2018
  • Broadway Theatre (Letchworth)  – 4th November 2018
  • Cambridge Music Festival – 23rd November 2018

 

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