Nosferatu’s Children

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It’s no secret how much I admire the work of the German film director, F. W. Murnau (1888 – 1931). The great cinema historian Lotte Eisner’s 1964 account of his work, life and death, Murnau, is among the books permanently on my bedside table. I’ve given up counting how many times I’ve read it.

Nosferatu: a symphony of horrors (1922) is a film that’s been embedded in my psyche for so long that I can’t remember a time when it hasn’t been an essential part of my creative resources. As a young choreographer and later a director and stage designer, the films of Murnau were a constant and steady influence on my work, and that continued when I became an artist. It’s not even a question of compositional borrowing – as Murnau himself freely plundered the works of the painter Caspar David Friedrich to fuel his cinematic visions – but more a case of carrying a tune in my head, as if Murnau wrote the music that I move to.

Murnau and his producer Albin Grau got caught out in the act of theft when Grau’s production company lost the case brought against it by the widow of Bram Stoker for infringement of copyright, Nosferatu‘s plot having been all too obviously lifted from her late husband’s vampire novel, Dracula. First she demanded recompense, and when it became clear that the film, which had not been financially successful for its producer, was not to be milked for cash, then she embarked on a mission to have all copies of it destroyed, a goal that she would have accomplished had a very few copies of it not escaped her reach. (She had just sold the rights of the novel to Universal Pictures, who were about to film it with Bela Lugosi in the title role, and she was driven in her determination to wipe Nosferatu off the face of the earth so that it wouldn’t become any impediment to the deal.)

 

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From the beginning of the Hansel & Gretel project, when I was making the illustrations for the Random Spectacular picturebook of the fairytale, I had Nosferatu in the back of my mind. The vampire Count Orlock’s appearance was conceived by the film’s producer/designer Grau, who had founded his production company with the express purpose of making a film of Dracula, albeit without permission from the author’s estate. There seems to be no record of who created and applied the Orlock make-up, and it’s likely that in the custom of that time, Max Schreck, an experienced stage actor, would have been responsible for his own, though with a lot of input from Grau and Murnau.

My Hansel & Gretel witch, with her pate rendered skull-like by a close-fitting cap, and with her hawkish profile, slender fangs and extended, taloned fingers, riffed on Max Schreck’s appearance in the film. First in the book, and latterly in the stage production, her look was rooted in his.

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The landscapes of the stage production were also influenced by the film. The slow pans of the forest I used in the projected sequences, were inspired by both the pine forests of Murnau’s locations and the way he used the camera to shoot them. (There’s one particular – and beautiful – landscape camera pan in Nosferatu, that has a slight juddering quality that looks almost like stop-motion, and I borrowed the effect for several of the filmed Hansel & Gretel scenes.)

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The opening shot of the film foregrounds a tower, and I nodded to it in the building-blocks of Hansel & Gretel‘s toy-box.

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A detail I’ve always liked in the film is the hyena sequence Murnau was at pains to get, using footage he shot of a zoo specimen to illustrate a reference in the intertitles to werewolves. Although I didn’t make use of a hyena in my stage version of Hansel & Gretel, Simon Armitage made reference to one in his text, using the animal as a metaphor for Hansel’s unending hunger. That was all the encouragement I needed, and my ‘homage’ to Murnau’s werewolf ‘stand-in’ has found its place in the forthcoming published edition of the libretto.

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Probably the strangest and most sinister scene in the stage production of Hansel & Gretel, is the one I reserved to capture imagery closest in style to the shadow world of Nosferatu. Using the specially painted and furnished doll’s house I provided for the scene, cameraman, Pete Telfer eerily – though beautifully – lit the model and then created a combination of unnervingly jerky zooms and insidiously gliding panning shots of its interior. The resulting shadowry is pure ‘Nosferatu’.

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To complete the homage to my satisfaction, I added a coffin-like chest as the sole item of furniture in one of the doll’s house rooms, to reference the coffin-in-the-cellar where Count Orlock sleeps away the daylight hours

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Of course, no-one in the audience is actually supposed to notice these references to a film most of them won’t even have seen, let alone recognise as being building blocks in my own work. The imagery of Hansel & Gretel is what it is because of the way I assembled the visual aesthetic of the stage production. Everything in it is seen from the children’s perspective, from the clockwork tin chickens that peck at the breadcrumbs Hansel lays as a trail home, to the vintage building blocks and brightly painted toy soldiers that stand in for the chaos of war all around. Everything visual in the production was chosen to support Matthew Kaner’s music and Simon Armitage’s text. The rest is my private game, though one that helped me quarry the character of the piece.

While Nosferatu laid out an iconography of images that film-makers and creatives have drawn on ever since, none have yet matched, or even come close to matching the miasma of dread in which the director drenched his subject matterThat has proved unique and consistently impossible to reproduce. Nosferatu continues to guard its mysteries, and all we can do is take the time to look and wonder at its achievements. There are so many moments in it that I love, though my favourite is unchanging. Borrowing from Bram Stoker’s plot device of transporting his undead Count as ‘cargo’ in the hold of a vessel, Murnau offers the unforgettable sight of the ‘death ship’ transporting Orlock gliding swiftly and silently into Bremen to disgorge its deadly plague of vampire and rats, and for me it’s the most beautiful and potent moment in the history of early cinema.

Vampires can’t beget children, at least not in the orthodox way. Nevertheless, Hansel & Gretel grew out of the fantastic tone poem of Murnau’s film, and that makes them, to a very great extent, Nosferatu’s children.

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Photograph courtesy of:

www.stillmovingmedia.co.uk

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

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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.

 

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

Hansel & Gretel is Coming!

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The Premiere at the Cheltenham Festival is on July 7th.

Box Office open from April 4th.

Words: Simon Armitage
Music: Matthew Kaner
Visual Direction: Clive Hicks-Jenkins
Dramaturgy: Caroline Clegg
Producer: Kate Romano for Goldfield Productions

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Puppets: Jan Zalud

Model Sets: Philip Cooper

Shadow Puppets: Peter Lloyd

Puppet Wardrobe Supervisor: Oonagh Creighton-Griffiths

 

 

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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