Into the Haunted Doll’s House

On stage, scene 6 of Hansel & Gretel is the most atmospheric yet disturbing in the production. Both the music and the text for it are different in tone to any of the scenes before or after. Gretel has just shoved the witch in her own red-hot cauldron, and though we might expect brother and sister to leg it out of the house as fast as they can, instead Simon Armitage, who has written the poem that is the narrative of our production, leads them, and us, deeper into the heart of darkness. It’s a classic horror-movie scenario of innocents in jeopardy, and I’m reminded of the moment from Silence of the Lambs in which Clarice Starling, played by Jodie Foster, descends into the cellar of the murderer’s lair.

Matt Kaner threads his music sinuously through Simon’s text, and the result is bone-chilling.

House where the dark broods

House where the dark blooms

House where the dark breeds

House where the dark breathes

I began my work on the scene by laying out ideas for the production team about what the visuals might be. Simon had written an evocative ‘stage direction’ for it, though that was more by way of a suggestion of mood rather than anything too specific. He was always clear that he was happy to allow us the freedom to interpret.

To begin with I intended to film footage on location in abandoned and derelict buildings, looking particularly at cellars and rooms without windows. There had been much in the news about men (it always seems to be men) who imprison young women in cellars for decades, fathering children on them and keeping these ‘hidden families’ in isolation. But after long consideration I came to the conclusion that such a stark, documentary-like contrast to all the other visual aspects of the production, would be too great, and gradually the idea of location filming began to be replaced with the idea of a nightmarish doll’s house.

Below: cameraman Pete Telfer begins to shape the ‘haunted’ doll’s house with lighting rigs. His work on the sequence is immaculate.

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Most of my visual references stemmed from German Expressionist films of the 1910s – 1930s, with a spattering of American Gothic (most significantly Hitchcock’s Psycho) thrown in. The model is a complete four-story building with eight rooms leading off the spine of four sizeable hallways/landings through which the twisting stairways rise. In the event only just over half of the house was prepared for the camera, as the rest of the space was required for the lighting-rigs. (But I’m going to complete the as yet undecorated spaces shortly, and also paint the exterior of the house.)

The rooms were furnished with commercially available doll’s house furniture, much of which I carefully broke before texturising and painting. (Texture was grit gathered from the floor of my attic-studio, mixed into gouache and applied to rooms and furnishings in layers of ashy grey.)

Cameraman Pete Telfer produced wonderfully elegant and atmospheric gliding shots by panning a camera secured on a tripod, contrasting with the jerky, nervy ‘point-of-view’ footage achieved with a tiny hand-held cam the size of a golf ball. When edited together, the dual techniques were less destabilising for an audience than had we used a shaky hand-held throughout.

The making of the doll’s house is an extraordinary story for another time, though for now this post is the acknowledgement that without Simon Coupland, Jana Wagenkenecht and Stephanie Davies, it simply wouldn’t have happened. They were heroes, key to the whole endeavour and their part in it will be fully acknowledged and described at the Artlog later this year. (They know the reasons why I’m deferring the moment.)

An honourable mention, too, for Jon Street of The Moth Factory, Bristol, who guided me so unerringly through the film editing process, and contributed so generously at every stage of it. Everything, in the end, is collaboration.

Final word. Audiences have not see the last of the haunted doll’s house. Watch this space.

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Broken furniture piled high in the haunted doll’s house.

House where the light peeps

House where the dark leaks

House where the light bleeds

House where the dark weeps

 

Extracts are from the poem Hansel & Gretel by Simon Armitage.

 

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 Lefeber

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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Hansel & Gretel: Don’t Go Into The Wood!

Producing the Hansel & Gretel book-trailer was a team effort that wouldn’t have been possible without the generous support of my collaborators.
Film: Culture Colony Vision
Models: Philip Cooper
Music: Kate Romano

Hansel & Gretel Prelude performed on the toy piano by Kate Romano and recorded by Rob Godman

I’ve worked with Pete Telfer of Culture Colony Vision many times over the past ten years. He’s produced several films about my practice as an artist. Pete was cameraman and all round facilitator on the animated film I made to accompany Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale at the 2013 Hay Festival, and he filmed and edited the animation and model sequences for the music theatre project of The Mare’s Tale. (Composed by Mark Bowden in 2013 with a text by Damian Walford Davies.) Pete gently guides me through the processes of my ‘film’ projects. He is unfailingly supportive and manages the delicate business of giving me enough freedom to experiment, while ensuring that I don’t make a complete dick of myself.

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Phil Cooper and I have been friends ever since he caught a train from London to turn up at a maquette-making workshop I gave in Swansea that I was quite sure no-one would attend. He is a maker to his fingertips. When I saw some of the models he was producing as part of his exploration on the theme of German Expressionist film, I pounced and asked whether he’d consider creating a model version of the witch’s house for my Hansel & Gretel book-trailer. He used my drawings as a starting point, and then freely extemporised on the theme. I love what he created.

In September 2016 Phil arrived at Aberystwyth station carrying a suitcase packed with all the models and materials necessary to make his magic in our dining-room-turned-pop-up-animation-studio. Out came the steeply-pitched cottage, the conical-roofed tower, the boulders and ruined archway and a huge variety of trees, enough to cover the dining-table in an arboretum of impressive dimensions. We reconfigured the set several times over the two days, to get the most film coverage, and Phil glued and brushed and tacked cloth and crumpled tissue paper into the strange topographies of our fairy-tale wood. Moreover between the set-building and tweaking, he took to animation as though he’d been doing it for years.

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Kate Romano came late to the team. Just as I was beginning to panic that my original idea of creating a music free soundtrack for the trailer out of strange noises – all of which I’d have to create and record – wasn’t going to work, I took it into my head to suggest that she record a few bars on one of her toy pianos for me to use within the soundtrack. Kate suggested that she take a tilt at composing a beginning-to-end accompaniment for the film, and her Prelude for Hansel & Gretel, played on a two octave toy piano, is the result. I wasn’t able to show Kate any footage before she wrote and recorded the music, though she’d seen a dummy copy of the picture book. The character of what she produced was perfect, and Pete and I cut the trailer to fit it. I think the music is better for not having been tailored shot by shot. I was able to synchronise images to the soundtrack where the fit was good, and to cut across it when that seemed the better option.

Rob Godman is a composer in his own right, and a friend and regular collaborator with Kate. However I’ve never met him, and so his contribution of recording her playing of Prelude for Hansel & Gretel is a particularly generous one. He has my heartfelt thanks.

In 2014 Simon Lewin of St Jude’s undertook to publish my proposed picture book of Hansel & Gretel  under his Random Spectacular imprint. His support underpinned the project from start to finish. The book-trailer has been made to celebrate our bringing the picture-book to its conclusion.

Hansel & Gretel 

The Brothers Grimm fairy tale reimagined by Clive Hicks-Jenkins

Published by Random Spectacular, November 2016

Printed by Swallowtail, Norwich

Scanning by Saxon Digital Services, Norwich

Random Spectacular is the publishing imprint of design collective and print gallery, St Jude’s. The imprint was launched in 2011, providing the opportunity for St Jude’s to explore further collaborations in printed and audio form.

The picture book will be available for pre-order at Random Spectacular from Monday 30th October. (Halloween!)

www.randomspectacular.co.uk

Don’t Go Into the Wood!

 

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The past days have been a frenzy of activity. On Thursday my friend Phil Cooper arrived at Aberystwyth station with a knapsack, a taped-together makeshift portfolio and a mysterious suitcase. At Ty Isaf the portfolio yielded the painted backdrop of a night sky, while out of the suitcase spilled box after box packed with the models Phil had prepared for two days of filming the book-trailer we’re putting together in advance of the November launch of Hansel & Gretel, a picture-book commissioned from me by Simon Lewin for his Random Spectacular imprint. I finished the artwork earlier this year, and right now Simon is in the process of seeing the project through the design and printing processes.

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Phil (pictured above) took my images for the book as his starting point for the models, but then extemporised and got playful with them. The idea was not so much to imitate the illustrations as to create a ‘constructed’ universe which might have been their source. In a way the book-trailer is in the mould of those opening credits for films wherein the mood is set for what follows. Saul Bass did it magnificently for Psycho and Anatomy of a Murder. Phil was given his head to make his own interpretation of my drawings, and he’s risen to the challenge with tremendous ingenuity. Experiencing them was a strange combination of the familiar and the oddly different. (The way dreams sometimes are.)

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This is not the first time the dining-room at Ty Isaf has been turned into a pop-up animation studio. All of the animation footage for The Mare’s Tale, the 2013 chamber-work by composer Mark Bowden and librettist Damian Walford Davies, was filmed here, as was the animated presentation I made to accompany a performance of Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale at the 2013 Hay Festival. Film-maker and cameraman Pete Telfer worked on those projects too. There’s an ease in the relationship between us that makes for good collaboration.

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Above: I took this over Pete’s shoulder as he composed his shot in the viewfinder of his camera while I watched on the monitor. What’s on the table in front of us bears no resemblance to what you’ll see in the trailer. The chaotic is processed and rendered into magical order by the alchemy of lights and camera.

It takes a while to get the feel for models and how to light and shoot them. The first morning of work was hesitant as we arranged and rearranged the witch’s cottage hemmed in by trees, and everything was rather cautious and stilted. Like the first day of school! A couple of set-ups into the afternoon and the creativity was flowing freely, and by the evening we’d got some lovely shots into the can.

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Saturday began early for me as I wanted to get a story-board ready before Pete arrived for the day’s work. Although I’d had a rough idea of what I wanted to achieve, it had taken the arrival of the models and seeing how they looked in front of the camera to clarify how best to proceed. By 10.30 am Pete was adjusting his lights and Phil and I were puppeteering boards and torches to create a restless nightscape of animated shadows. I always know Pete is in the zone when he begins to march up to a model and shift things around. When that starts to happen, we’re up and away.

In the afternoon we struck the forest set and began work on the makeshift animation-table I’ve used for all my film projects. (Animation-table is a grand word for a large sheet of rough plywood coated with blackboard paint.) The ‘text’ for the book-trailer was hand-written – and occasionally animated – in white crayon on a black ground, in ‘homage’ to the chalkboard title-sequence of my favourite film bar none, Jean Cocteau’s ravishing fairy-tale of 1946, La belle et la bête.

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Hansel & Gretel are absent from the trailer, though another character makes a partial and unnerving appearance. But for that, you’ll have to wait! We edit on the 17th and the trailer will be available for viewing shortly thereafter. Look out for it.

Dark Movements: ‘the quickening’

Here I show the early stages of work on the painting The Quickening, currently underway. I’ve included images from other paintings and drawings that I’m referencing into it. You might call this post a combination of mood-board and progress report.

Below: the briefest sketch shapes the composition

before being worked out more completely

Below: key aspects get worked out in more detail

Below: the foliate-patterned ground to my recent cover for Marly Youmans’ new novel, is sticking like a burr to my coat-tails, and is set to be reinvented to play a significant role in the new works…

… as is the rendering of the bird

Last Year’s Hervé and the Wolf series of paintings, set the tone for ‘Dark Movements’

Underdrawing for The Quickening. (detail)

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So many things are meeting in these new works: my original drawings for The Mare’s Tale (and my family history that underlies them), the recent collaborations with my model, Jordan Morley, themes of greening and renewal, my love and use of toy theatre in my practice, and of course, that old discipline of mine, long behind me but always present in my mind… and in muscle-memory… the dance.

I am pleased to announce that the composer Peter Byrom-Smith, will be providing a soundtrack of new music to accompany the exhibition, both in the gallery, and as a soundtrack to the animated film Dark Movements that I’m working on with my regular collaborator, film-maker Pete Telfer of Culture Colony. The film will be screened in a dedicated space within the gallery. There will also be new work from the American poet Jeffery Beam, who has been closely watching my progress on Dark Movements, and has produced a poetic text to accompany the recent paintings.

Composer, Peter Byrom-Smith

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Poet, Jeffrey Beam

modes of locomotion

Above and below: Mari Lwyd maquette under construction

This is by way of a little demonstration of the ways in which ideas evolve. A little while ago I posted an edited sequence of puppetry done with the Mari Lwyd maquette I made in the form of a skeletal horse for The Mare’s Tale. In the sequence the maquette had been fitted with rods and operated on a slope-board by two puppeteers. In the production we used only flashes of the sequence, far less than you’ll see here. In fact I probably showed too little of it, having erred on the side of less is more. Here it is again, for a recap.

Edited rod-puppet sequence for The Mare’s Tale

A few weeks before filming the rod-puppet horse, I’d made a stop-motion test of the same maquette, followed by some stop-motion tests of the mumming-figure maquettes of the Groom, Judy (or the He/She) and a Foliate Man, the last of which is not to my knowledge part of the Mari Lwyd tradition. (I added him for visual diversity.)

Below: maquettes under construction

I learned a lot from the tests, and although we filmed further stop-motion sequences for the production, I used them only subliminally as I didn’t like the quality nearly as much as the filming done after I’d fitted the maquettes with rods. (I have ideas about experimenting further with stop-motion, using out of focus and a moving background of dust and detritus. I need to dirty the whole thing up a bit.)

The idea of fitting the maquette with rods only came about as I played with the skeletal horse  while trying to find stranger movement potential for it. It’s interesting to compare the two skeletal horse sequences. And by the way, it is the same puppet, even though in the rod-puppet sequence it appears facing the other way. The cameraman is Pete Telfer.

Stop-motion tests for The Mare’s Tale