Hansel & Gretel at Barbican

 

After a beautifully projected and nuanced performance of Hansel & Gretel at the Jack Lyons Concert Hall in York last week, the company move on to the exciting event of the London Premiere at Barbican tomorrow evening. (October12th)

The Milton Court Concert Hall, Barbican, is the largest of the tour venues, and it’s there that the performance is to be recorded by BBC Radio 3 for later broadcast. This new version of Hansel & Gretel, with a libretto by Simon Armitage and composed by Matthew Kaner, has been two years in the planning and making, and tomorrow many of the creatives who brought it to life will be present in the audience to celebrate the achievement. Congratulations to all, but particularly to Producer Kate Romano, who under the umbrella of her Goldfield Productions made it all happen.

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Above: Lizzie Wort and Di Ford, our incomparable puppeteers on the production. The puppet maker was Jan Zalud with puppet wardrobe created by Oonagh Creighton Griffiths.

 

Soldier Blue

 

This animation sequence made for the stage production of Hansel & Gretel was unplanned, added to the last half hour of a day’s filming when the idea of marching the toy soldiers through the archway came to me. In the event only a flash of it appears in the production, which is a shame because the bit I like most – right at the end – was left out.

Filming was tricky. The model was very small and the narrow archway meant having to move the toy soldiers through it with tweezers. In fact the steps were so narrow and the soldiers’ bases so tiny that there were times when getting the little fellows in place and balanced long enough for a shot, was challenging. The model wasn’t fixed, but made of loose and unstable blocks, so my every clumsy nudge as I animated made the building appear to wobble in the finished footage. I don’t mind that, as I think it adds charm to the sequence.

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For me, the most touching thing about how this particular animation sequence came about, is that the little dogs were a tender gift from my friend Angela Beaumont, who sent them – ostensibly to Jack – to make me smile at a time when she knew I was worried about his deteriorating health. As it happened the miniature parcel arrived by post the day he died, and the pic of its contents lying in their wrappings next to Jack on his blanket in the window-seat, was the last photograph I took of him.

Over the weeks following Jack’s death, I made several arrangements of the vintage Netherlandish building-blocks (a gift from my friend Mathijs Van Soest), the tin cavalryman, the handful of toy soldiers (which are actually miniature skittles) and of course the pair of tiny dogs. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs got into the picture too, though only temporarily. Ideas for the production were cooking. This is the way I often work as I prepare a project, whether a painting or animation or a model for a book illustration. I constantly build and re-build in different configurations, adding and removing elements, trying out unlikely combinations. It’s a process of play, and somewhere en route, a few ideas coalesce into something that I realise might be heading toward a solution. Simon Armitage’s text for Hansel & Gretel makes reference to the flags of opposing factions, and so I cut paper pennants to tape to the toy soldiers. I made numerous adjustments to the archway, tweaking and finessing.

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When the time came to film animation sequences of the children’s playthings and the war-torn devastation of their community, I realised I could use the building blocks, tin cavalryman and toy soldiers to represent both. Later I decided to put the building blocks and cavalryman on stage, as well as on film, so that Hansel and Gretel could play with them in their bedroom. (For the stage, I’d reversibly glue the blocks together so that the archway wouldn’t collapse during the live action.)

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By animating the toys in the screened sequences, it was possible to bring them to life, suggesting to the audience the children’s imaginative powers to transform the devastation of war and bombings into something they could – at least in part – control.

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Above: the devastation of war represented by ruined buildings, fallen soldiers and stricken animals.

Below: order (and life) restored through the power of play.

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I would have liked to explore more notions of the redemptive power of play. But a production of this complexity – text and music combined with live performances, puppetry and pre-recorded visuals – allows only so much time within its length to piece all the elements together to make sense. The stage performance of Hansel & Gretel lasts just an hour, and there must be the space within that for everything to work without any sense of it being too crammed with ideas. Images have to work alongside words and music, illuminating without overwhelming. I had to simplify.

The ‘making’ time we had on the production was extremely short, followed by all of the filming requirements scheduled into just three days, which is not much at all when you take account of the changes of camera and lighting set-ups, arranging the models and building and striking the heavy animation screen required for the shadow-puppet sequences. We filmed many models: the various set-ups of the forest, the exterior of the witch’s house and the four-storey ‘doll’s house’ used for the interiors, the many set-ups of  the ‘archway’, both intact and in ruins, the ‘mechanical bird’ and scores of ‘still’ shots used to in-fill animation sequences. There were large numbers of complex shadow-screen animations of the parents, of several versions of the witch, and of the extremely-difficult-to-film and labour-intensive ‘dancing Lebkuchen biscuits’, which slid about on the sloping animation board and created endless problems. Phil Cooper – who assisted with the animation – joined me in turning the air blue as we wrangled those damned Lebkuchen into submission!

Cameraman Pete Telfer and I have been working together now for many years and he’s always game for anything I suggest, helping me find ways to achieve the ‘vision’. But though we have a sort of shorthand that enables us to work creatively even when against the clock, this project was beyond any normal definition of ambitious. Phil wasn’t available for all the sessions, which slowed things down on the days he couldn’t be with us. The quality of filmed imagery I wanted for the production was extraordinarily diverse and complex to bring to completion, and in the end I overran the filming schedule by a day.

The editing was at the Moth Factory in Bristol. Jon Street, our amazing editor/vision-mixer, was heroic in finding solutions to the many problems I threw at him. He listened not only to what I asked for, but read between the lines at every stage, working away quietly to find solutions to things he knew I was worrying about though not voicing.

When all the visuals had been fitted to the music and words, we spent a long afternoon colour balancing and adjusting the tonal values of the footage, adding the rich blues we wanted to unify many of the model and papercut animation sequences, and enhancing the shadows.

Below: Jon at the Moth Factory, colour balancing footage of the forest.

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Later, in rehearsals, the film elements of Hansel & Gretel that had been edited to quite rough early recordings of the work, had to be re-shaped to the live music and words, and the editing was for the last time tweaked into shape. In the performances, Jon is behind the camera that streams images of the live puppetry to the screen, and there is no-one better suited to the job because he has such intimate knowledge of how all the pieces of this production fit together. So many people work to bring a project of this scale to the stage, and the individual contributions can’t be measured on a scale. But if there were one, he’d be pretty high up on it. Such insight, good judgement and multiple technical skills – combined with good humour, patience and infinite generosity – don’t usually come in a single package, though in Jon, they do. He’s a champion! We originally came to work together in 2014 on another music/theatre piece, The Mare’s Tale (music by Mark Bowden and words by Damian Walford Davies), and I have Pete Telfer, who was cameraman on that project too, to thank for the introduction. I wouldn’t want to work on any project like this without Pete or Jon.

In creative matters, one thing leads to another. When puppeteer Lizzie Wort watched the animation sequence of the toy soldiers marching through the archway, she went off by herself to work with the model, and produced a lovely sequence in which Gretel pushes soldiers through the archway. It makes for a wonderful reference from live-action to animation and back again, and it shows the rich levels of creativity that can develop when performers and artists are alert to each other’s work, delighting in and then borrowing ideas to run with them and build moments that link, rebound and resonate.

Clive Hicks-Jenkins. August 2018

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.