Two of Everything

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2017 is my year of Hansel and Gretel. Two projects on the theme are now completed, printed and available for purchase. The picture book published by Random Spectacular is available from the publisher, while the toy theatre kit published by Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop is available both from the shop in Covent Garden and online.

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They share common elements, though have separate characters and serve quite different purposes. The Random Spectacular publication was always intended as an ‘artist’s book’. In it I had the freedom to be as dark as I liked in my expression of the story.

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By contrast the Pollock’s project took a more playful approach, inspired by the traditions of the toy theatre as practiced by the great publisher of paper stages and the plays produced for them, Benjamin Pollock.

The two projects developed pretty much in tandem, as the arrangement with Pollock’s followed closely on my discussions about the book with Simon Lewin. And while there was no requirement from either publisher that the book and the toy theatre should in any way link, for my own part I wanted there to be a bridge between the two.

The Pollock’s toy theatre wasn’t conceived as an adaptation of the picture book. Rather my thinking on it was that the children of the picture book had survived their travails and moved on, travelling to London where a theatrical producer with an eye to the main chance had persuaded them to appear in a stage version of their own story. This ‘back-story’ was not something that needed to be stated in the sales material for the theatre, but was more by way of what I needed in order to better serve the subject. Just as an actor needs to create a history for a character in order to better play the role, so I needed to create a plausible route for Hansel and Gretel from the book that recounts their story, to the toy theatre that presents it in a changed form.

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Publisher Simon Lewin was incredibly generous in his support of the picture book. He was patient with the time it took for me to produce the images, nurturing the project to completion without making any compromises on the quality we both saw as being essential to our joint vision. The design of the book required a lot of attention to detail, not least because of the several fold-out pages that had to align exactly when in the closed position. It was essential, too, that the book lay flat when open, so that none of the image details were lost in the ‘gutter’, which is the valley caused by the stapling together of pages.

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At Pollock’s, Louise Heard and her team were equally painstaking in seeing through the production of the toy theatre kit. The project called for meticulous realisation because three of the six construction sheets were illustrated on both sides, which required precise alignment at the printing stage. Although small in scale I had ambitions for the model to be a fully functioning toy theatre, with 6 backcloths, 2 side-wings and all the characters and props necessary for a performance of the play.

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I wrote a script to be included with the model, and painted a theatre poster for the production.

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I know that all this provided considerable challenges for everyone concerned, and yet Louise never for a moment balked at the extra work involved. The little stage had to be proofed and trialled over and over to ensure the instructions were accurate and that every aspect of the model worked.

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As the idea behind the toy theatre was that it should represent a ‘stage’ version of the ‘real’ story as expressed in the picture book, I made the children the same in both, though they’re dressed rather more picturesquely for their stage adventures than the neat school uniforms they wear in the book.

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The book’s angry mother, with her slovenly appearance and her face pulled taut by the too-tightly fastened rollers in her hair, is portrayed on stage by a plump and mumsy peasant in a headscarf, deeply concerned that her children are missing in the wood, while the visceral horror of the cannibal witch with her prosthetic nose that she rips aside to better smell Hansel with her wormy nasal cavity, in the play is a less disturbing, more traditional fairy tale crone.

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I like the idea that the stage version wipes away the nightmare of what the children in reality endured, transforming it with glitter and evasions into an acceptable entertainment.

It’s interesting to compare the imagery. The palette is far more vivid and toy-like in the Pollock’s Hansel & Gretel, whereas the book takes a more delicate approach to colour.

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The Witch’s house is similar in both versions, though the stage version comes garnished with icing-sugar decorations.

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In the book Hansel is thrown into a cage by a lumbering, zombie-like gingerbread monster, and locked in to be fattened up for the cooking-pot. He suffers the same fate in the stage version, though there the gingerbread men are small and distinctly less threatening.

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While the Witch is grotesque in both versions, for the stage she is less extreme.

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The friendly Duck is yellow in the book, and pink in the toy theatre…

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… while the oven turns from blue in the book to red for the stage, and leaves out the skull and flames of the former.

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It’s not possible to get away from the fact that the original Hansel & Gretel by the Grimm Brothers is deeply disturbing. Hansel’s fate is to be cooked and eaten, but opportunist Gretel shoves the cannibal Witch into an oven first, slams the door and leaves her to be burned to cinders. No matter how much you gussy up the tale with gingerbread and icing-sugar, it has murder, or at the very least, manslaughter, at its heart. In the picture book I tinkered with the details and ratcheted up the horror. For the toy theatre version I toned down the monstrousness and conjured a picturesque world more suitable for a plaything. The two nevertheless remain linked, and for those in-the-know, they’re intended as companion pieces.

You may purchase the toy theatre

HERE

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and the book, HERE

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Out of these twin publications, picture-book and toy theatre, a third Hansel & Gretel project has been born that will carry the ideas explored so far into new and exciting territories and collaborations. I’ll write about it here when I am able. But you should know that the story is not over yet!

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Silence in the Woods

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Forgive the silence at the Artlog. The reason is simple. Right now I am consumed with completing the Hansel & Gretel Toy Theatre Kit for Benjamin Pollock’s Toy Shop in Covent Garden. It’s quite a complicated job, designing something not only beautiful, but that also works in terms of being relatively simple to cut out and make. This morning I’ve been writing the assembly instructions and I don’t think in my life I’ve felt quite such a burden of responsibility for making words clearly convey meaning. (I recall all those cut-out toys of my childhood that went horribly wrong because the instructions misdirected me!)

But the silence is largely due to being unable to share the images I’m producing, because the people at Pollock’s understandably want to keep the design under wraps until the launch. Everything has to be a secret until then.

But I can tell you that there will be plenty of scenery by way of back-cloths and cut-cloths, with kuchen-cottages, gloomy kitchens, blazing ovens, haunted woods and confectionary galore. Moreover this production should satisfy the most ardent toy theatre enthusiasts with the number of characters I’ve managed to fit in into a small space, including – apart from the usual suspects – the Witch’s Cat, a friendly Duck, some Gingerbread Men and a couple of Monster Trees.

Scissors and glue at the ready!

A Dream Come True

Above: Set of Green’s wings from my collection of toy theatre ephemera

When I was a child, I was given a stack of yellowing toy theatre sheets by a friend of my parents, the actor and playwright Bill Meilen. They were mostly scenery, consisting of backdrops, wings and ground-rows. I had no toy theatre stage, and so I made one. (Probably out of a used cereal pack!) Bill encouraged me to cut the sheets, to colour them and use them, and to my everlasting regret as an adult, I did. I wish I wish I wish that I had not, and had stored them away somewhere safe. Instead, I cut and played with them, and there must have been some pretty potent magic in the fragile sheets, because here I am, over fifty years later, still in thrall to the wonders of the toy theatre.

Toy theatre in my studio, made from wooden building-blocks

The gift of Juvenile Drama scenery sheets from Bill, cut and pasted and gracing a toy stage of my own making, vanished, together with the other toys of my childhood, when my parents moved house. They left the rented Edwardian terraced property I’d grown up in, and moved to a small, modern flat. I was away at school in London at the time, and my bedroom in the old house, airy and packed with so many things I treasured, was ‘downsized’ to fit into the box-room that would thereafter be my bedroom in the family home. The theatre and its scenery vanished, alongside much else that I would have wished to keep. They were good parents in so many ways, but they weren’t sentimental about such things.

Yesterday, I made an agreement with Pollock’s Toy Theatre shop in London, to design the next title in their series of model theatres by contemporary artists. I’ll produce Hansel & Gretel to join the two ahead of me, The Snow Queen and the recent Beauty and the Beast. In 2016, not only will I be producing my first picture-book, thanks to Simon Lewin and his Random Spectacular imprint, but I’ll also be producing a model theatre for the shop bearing the name of the man who has been a beacon of creativity for me throughout my life, Benjamin Pollock. More here about this exiting project before too long.