Reinventing Gawain at the National Library of Wales

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My thanks to the many who on Saturday afternoon filled the lecture theatre at the National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth, to hear me speak. It was the first time since its publication in October that I’ve talked about my collaboration with Simon Armitage to make an illustrated edition of his translation of the medieval poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and it was a happy occasion for me to reminisce at a comfortable distance from all the hard work and exhaustion that went into the project. Good too, to place the lion’s share of credit at the feet of Dan Bugg, who facilitated the entire adventure at his Penfold Press Studio in Selby, Yorkshire, and who guided this artist so completely inexperienced in the alchemy of screen-printing, safely through the labyrinth and back out again.

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My thanks to Stuart Evans of Aberystwyth Printmakers, who arranged the Library event, and to all at the National Library who were warmly welcoming and made the occasion such a pleasure.

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From Stage to Page

 

 

 

This short film was made as the Introduction to the Design for Today book launch of Simon Armitage’s Hansel & Gretel: a Nightmare in Eight Scenes at the splendid Artworkers’ Guild in Bloomsbury on the evening of May 22nd, 2019. The film illustrates the journey of the project from stage production to published edition of the poem that was its libretto.

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Live music for the launch event was provided by the splendid Alex Barrow on the accordion. There was a pop-up exhibition assembled by Joe and me of the mid-century Russian illustrated books, tinplate clockwork birds, model theatres and folk-art-inspired toys that had influenced the illustrations and design of the book. The highlight of the evening was Simon Armitage’s reading of his entire poem, proving yet again that he’s a mesmerising presence when presenting his work. It was a ticketed event that quickly sold out, and was a resounding success.

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Above: the Russian clockwork ‘singing’ bird from the stage production, meets her illustrated counterpart in the finished book.

Below: the transition from stage to page.

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 Hansel & Gretel: a Nightmare in Eight Scenes by Simon Armitage is published by Design for Today, and copies may be purchased

HERE

 

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Acknowledgements

My regular collaborator, Pete Telfer, worked with me on all the film and animation footage seen in last year’s stage production of Hansel & Gretel: a Nightmare in Eight Scenes. The clips in the short film to promote the book are courtesy of his Culture Colony archive, and he was cameraman on the new animation that makes up the last third of the film.

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I couldn’t have made the stage production of Hansel & Gretel without Pete. He’s the facilitator who gives me the freedom to experiment with film and animation, while keeping a gentle eye on things to stop me from making a complete and utter hash of the job.

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My thanks to Simon Armitage, who wrote the words that became the libretto to the stage production. Thereafter he suggested we make a dedicated illustrated edition of the poem, and then gave me the freedom to figure out the best way to do it.

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Working closely with Simon, first at Faber and then at Design for Today, on two texts so close to my heart, has been the most wonderful experience. I wish I could find better words to express what it’s meant to me, but I hope he knows.

Joe Pearson at Design for Today unhesitatingly agreed to work with Simon and me. His deep knowledge of twentieth century book design and his enthusiasm and passion for the project, saw it through the many stages to the perfect conclusion. He was unstoppable, even in the face of the 2018 New Year’s Eve fire that consumed the Design for Today warehouse and destroyed his entire stock of books. The man is a giant!

My thanks to Laurence Beck, our brilliant designer. Between Joe and Laurence, nothing was overlooked. I have never seen any book go through so many stages to bring it to perfection. No tweak or adjustment I requested was too much trouble. They were inspiring. Meticulous. Tireless.

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Print-maker and toy theatre seller, Benjamin Pollock has been an inspiration throughout my life, and my work over the past few years with Louise Heard at Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop underlies much of what appeared in both the stage production and the book. My thanks to Louise and her team for their unflagging enthusiasm and support for what I make. Louise kindly gave permission for an image of the Hansel & Gretel Toy Theatre I’d designed for Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop, to be used in the stage production, and further permission to adapt the Pollock’s H & G Toy Theatre for the ‘Intermission’ page in the book.

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Before Hansel & Gretel Dan Bugg and I had a three year collaboration making the fourteen-print Penfold Press Sir Gawain and the Green Knight series that was used in the 2018 Faber & Faber illustrated edition of Simon Armitage’s translation of the poem. It was a given we wanted to work together again in some way on  Hansel & Gretel, so Joe Pearson commissioned Dan to produce the two ‘Lebkuchen’ prints that accompany the ‘special edition’ of the book. Dan and I also produced the Penfold Press ‘Gingerbread House’ enamel-pin that celebrates the book’s publication.

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Special thanks to my trusty band of collaborators on last year’s stage production. Puppet-maker Jan Zalud far exceeded my hopes for what Hansel and Gretel might be, and Oonagh Creighton-Griffiths gave the children the tenderest backstories encoded into her beautifully detailed costumes for them.

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Peter Lloyd created magnificently detailed shadow-puppets that were a joy to animate.

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Phil Cooper was associate designer and my second-in-command in terms of the way the production looked.

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I completely trust his eyes and his artistry. He danced effortlessly between his many tasks, creating the ‘building-block’ models seen onstage, painting the filmed backdrops (see above), and designing and ‘baking’ the mad, wonky, witchy ‘Lebkuchen’ biscuits that we later animated in a ‘tribute’ to Hollywood choreographer, Busby Berkeley!

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It was Phil’s bone-white ‘Witch House’, with its incinerator-like chimney, that visually defined the ‘toy building-blocks’ aesthetic I wanted for the stage production, and thereafter his Lebkuchen ‘Gingerbread’ version that I carried forward into my illustrations for the book.

Below: production designer Phil Cooper, puppet costume supervisor Oonagh Creighton-Griffiths, and lead puppeteer for the audition day, Diane Ford.

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As if all that weren’t enough, Phil also assisted me with the animation sequences.

I am indebted to artist/embroideress Chloe Redfern, who later took Phil’s ‘Lebkuchen’ House, and re-booted it into something beautiful and transformative for the conclusion of the book.

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Above, Chloe’s embroidered Lebkuchen Witch House, and below, my translation of it to an illustration.

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I’m particularly indebted to Jonathan Street of the Moth Factory, Bristol, who kept me grounded and focussed during an insanely difficult three-day marathon of film editing. His thoughtful work on Pete Telfer’s gloriously atmospheric ‘Psycho Witch Doll’s House’ footage, was a triumph. Jon was vision-mixer for the tour, and was cameraman of the live footage streamed to a projection screen above the performers.

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My warmest thanks to puppeteers Diana Ford and Lizzie Wort. They were not only massively contributive creative geniuses on the production, following me fearlessly into sometimes choppy waters, but they are also damned fine people to be around. The three of us work hard but laugh a lot! In the photographs below you see them at the Cheltenham Music Festival for the May 2018 premiere of Hansel & Gretel: a Nightmare in Eight Scenes, and then at the May 2019 London launch of the Design for Today illustrated edition of the book. They topped and tailed the stage-production-to-book journey, and I couldn’t have had better company on the adventure

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Jan, Oonagh, Peter, Phil, Jonathan, Diana, Lizzie and later Chloe, whether they knew it or not, helped light the path for me from stage production to book. Their visual creativity was always present while I worked alone in my studio conjuring images out of Simon’s words. I’m the book’s named illustrator, but their influences are scattered like fireflies throughout its pages.

My love and gratitude in equal measure to my manager in all theatre matters, Susan James. We’ve known each other since we were teenagers, and I count myself fortunate to have had her wisdom and patience to guide and steady me. Hers are the eyes in the back of my head. She’s fearless, riding shotgun and being wing-man, seeing the bigger picture and the smallest details, talking me down whenever the frustrations of getting a production to the finishing-line catapult me into stratospheres of frustration. I doff my cap and bend my knee to her. She is ‘The Guv’nor’!

And finally, my love and thanks to Peter Wakelin, for his unstinting support throughout the long and occasionally rocky Hansel & Gretel journey, and to my friends James and Sarah Joseph. (They know why.)

 

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Publication Day, May 24th!

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After a year in the making, the published edition of Hansel & Gretel: a Nightmare in Eight Scenes, is about to launch. It was a pleasure from beginning to end, made so by the commitment of the small team who worked tirelessly to realise it. We shared an ambition to make something lasting and fine, and I believe we did just that.

My heartfelt thanks to Simon Armitage, who entrusted the project to me, and to publisher Joe Pearson at Design for Today, who unhesitatingly took up the challenge and then didn’t stop until everything was perfect. Thanks and admiration for Laurence Beck at Design for Today, who so beautifully designed the book. Huge thanks too to my regular collaborator Pete Telfer, who has been present at all stages of the Hansel & Gretel adventure, and was my cameraman and editor on the animations and film sequences of the stage production, as well as the book-trailer shown here.

And finally my warmest appreciation to the team on the stage production, whose unfailing creativity and cheer buoyed me up when the waters got very choppy: Di Ford and Lizzie Wort, Jan Zalud, Oonagh Creighton-Griffiths, Jonathan Street, Peter Lloyd and Phil Cooper. Every one of you, a hero in my book!

 

Clive Hicks-Jenkins, May 2019

Hansel & Gretel: the film of the production

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For all those who missed the tour of Hansel & Gretel: a nightmare in eight scenes

CLICK HERE

to see the production, recorded at the London premiere in the Milton Court Concert Hall, Barbican, last October.

The film is by the extraordinary Pete Telfer at Culture Colony. Pete had been cameraman and editor on an animated book-trailer we’d made as a promotion for the original Hansel & Gretel picture-book published by Random Spectacular, and then in 2018 joined the Goldfield Production team to work with me on the filmed and animated footage to be projected onstage during the performances.

Pete followed all stages of the pre-production, chronicling the creative processes and interviewing the team in the lead up to the premiere at last year’s Cheltenham Festival of Music. This documentation was made as a part of his ongoing and ground-breaking initiative at Culture Colony to record significant cultural events with Welsh artists at the heart of them. Without his generosity and tireless effort, there would have been no comprehensive record of the making of ‘Hansel & Gretel’, and all of us associated with it, production company, production staff and performers, owe him a huge debt of gratitude for his outstanding work. Later, Goldfield found a modest budget to underpin Pete’s filming of the Barbican performances, and the film has been edited together from that material.

In 2011 it was Pete Telfer, together with my then partner – and now husband, Peter Wakelin – who encouraged me to diversify my practice as an artist by making some animation tests with my studio maquettes, and my rather clumsy efforts were edited by Pete into a haunting little film with a spoken text by the American poet Marly Youmans. In 2013 he was animation cameraman on ‘The Mare’s Tale’, composed by Mark Bowden to a text by Damian Walford Davies, and premiered in a single, fully-staged production performed by Mid Wales Music Theatre.

When Kate Romano asked me to work with her to create a new Hansel & Gretel for her company Goldfield Productions, Pete Telfer came to the project with me, together with artists Peter Lloyd (papercut puppets), Jan Zalud (puppet-maker), Philip Cooper (scenic design, models and animation assistant), Jonathan Street (animation editor and onstage cameraman), Di Ford (puppeteer) and Oon Cg, (puppet wardrobe). I approached Simon Armitage, who I’d been in conversations with since he’d invited me to contribute illustrations to the Faber & Faber revision of his translation of Sir Gawain & the Green Knight, and he came to meet Kate Romano and me to discuss whether he’d be interested in producing a libretto for music yet to be written by composer Matthew Kaner. Simon agreed, and we were up and away.

There were others who joined the team as the work progressed, but these were the collaborators who were in place from the beginning.

 

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‘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 Chelteneham 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, full review in The Guardian)

 

Pinocchio’s Progeny

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The past twelvemonth has been a time of far too many losses, with loved ones of long-standing fading and falling away. While it’s the time in my life when such things must be expected, 2018 has nevertheless been particularly brutal, and I’ve hated witnessing the cull in my circle.

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Odd therefore that these two little creatures are playing so much on my mind. Perhaps it’s because of the strange alchemy of puppetry that wood, fashioned by a master and in the hands of the most incredible interpreters, can so astonishingly conjure animate life, tugging at our heartstrings and becoming so plausibly, heartrendingly real, that when I saw them being packed away by our producer at the end of the tour, with the hollow sense that I would not see them or hold them again (don’t ask), they somehow became the focus of all the losses of the year.

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I miss them so much, and I wonder how such a thing can be. I suppose it’s because they are, after all, Pinocchio’s progeny, wood transformed into flesh and bone, and sap into blood. In order to believe in them, we make the puppets real, and I, who was one of their creators, find myself grieving over their absence from my life, more than I am comfortable with. That is both the miracle of making life out of nothing, and the curse.

 

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Above: poet/librettist Simon Armitage, meets Gretel for the first time.

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My heartfelt thanks to Jan Zalud (puppet-maker), Di Ford and Lizzie Wort (puppeteers) and Oonagh Creighton-Griffiths (puppet costumier), who shared in equal parts with me the creation of the puppets of Hansel and Gretel.

Old Bus-Ticket Pink!

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I’m on the most wonderful adventure with publisher Joe Pearson and his assistant Laurence at Design for Today, and Simon Armitage’s glittering reinvention of a fairytale favourite has given us the most thrilling material to work with.

Simon’s Hansel & Gretel: a nightmare in eight scenes, formed the text to Matthew Kaner’s music in a production featuring the Goldfield Ensemble, plus actor, puppets and shadow-play, that I directed this year. (A recording of a performance of it given at Barbican is being broadcast by BBC Radio 3 on December 22nd.) In Spring 2019 the text is being published in a beautiful Design for Today edition, masterminded by Joe.

We’re currently tweaking the colours, a muted and atmospheric palette of dusty pinks, blues and yellows that I’ve nicknamed my ‘old bus-ticket’ range. (I think Farrow & Ball should take note!) This is the first ‘colour illustrated’ book I’ve produced for a contemporary text, and the process – thanks to Joe’s meticulous care for the book and our joint ambition to make it truly splendid – is the most fun I’ve ever had on an illustration project. What a great experience our work together over the past few months has been! My thanks to Simon, who came up with the idea of the illustrated edition and asked my help to make it happen, and of course to Joe, who unhesitatingly took up the challenge.

The palette for Hansel & Gretel: a nightmare in eight scenes, draws on the faded colours of old bus tickets.

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Sugar Rush

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Above, the Witch meets a bad end, shoved into a cauldron of molten Foam Shrimps, Jelly Beans, Glacier Mints and Liquorice Allsorts!

My task of illustrating Simon Armitage’s poem Hansel & Gretel: a nightmare in eight scenes, has been completed. It has been the most exciting work, especially coming at the conclusion of rehearsals for the stage production of Hansel & Gretel that I directed for its six month tour with the Goldfield Ensemble..

One of the things about any text presented on a stage, is that there never seems quite enough room within the short duration of a performance – especially one in which the words are set to music – to explore it as thoroughly as can be managed in a book. So the Design for Today edition of the text is my opportunity to really foreground Simon’s magnificent wordplay. A couple of weeks ago I carried all the original artwork in portfolios to London to deliver to Joe Pearson at Design for Today, and everything is currently being scanned, cleaned, layered and coloured by Joe and his assistant, Laurence.

I’m cock-a-hoop with the design for the book, which is just perfect. It’ll be out in the Spring. Stay tuned for updates re. pre-ordering, plus news of the special edition. (Which will come with two additional images printed by Dan Bugg at Penfold Press.)

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