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Axel Scheffler on Zog's theatre debut in Kingston

PUBLISHED: 10:40 15 February 2019 | UPDATED: 10:40 15 February 2019

Axel in his Richmond studio (Photo by Liam Jackson)

Axel in his Richmond studio (Photo by Liam Jackson)

Liam Jackson

Richmond illustrator Axel Scheffler is probably best known for bringing alive Julia Donaldson's Gruffalo and Stick Man characters but, following an on-screen adaptation over Christmas, another of his collaborations with the author is about to hit the stage. We find out more about the hapless young dragon, Zog.

When I last met with Axel Scheffler, we chatted about The Gruffalo and the other wonderful characters he has brought to life in his studio at the top of his house in Richmond. Many books, films and adaptations later, his work is still in demand and he continues to draw every day. At the moment he is focussing his attention on Zog, the hapless, but spirited young dragon and his journey through dragon school, whose story is being adapted for the stage.

“But,” says Axel apologetically, “I still haven’t tidied up. My studio is still a terrible mess.”

However, one man’s mess is another person’s delight, and to me, Axel’s studio is a veritable treasure trove; every table top bears his line drawings, the familiar characters, the quick sketches in coloured inks, the tiny print stamps he has made. I want to scoop the whole lot up and take it home. But that would be ungracious to say the least, and the self-effacing Axel, to whom illustration comes so naturally, would happily sketch a little drawing in my note book should I ask. He is generous with his work, his time and the creative energy he gives to his characters.

Axel is the best-selling, award-winning illustrator of many of the world’s favourite picture books. Born in Hamburg, he moved to England over 30 years ago to study illustration. Perhaps best-known for his collaborations with Julia Donaldson, his characters include The Gruffalo, which has sold over 13.5 million copies worldwide and been translated into over 60 languages. The Gruffalo is 20 years old this year, but the focus right now is on the younger Zog, the friendly dragon who will be brought to life this month in stage adaptation, with the premier at The Rose Theatre, Kingston.

Axel explains how Zog came to be the character adored by so many children today: “The writer of Zog is Julia Donaldson, and we have been collaborating on children’s books for so many years now. Julia has an idea of the character in her head, and it is up to me to translate into the characters as we see them in the books today,” he says. “With Zog, I knew he had to be a friendly dragon, but I had free rein because dragons are fictional. We all have an idea in our minds about how dragons look, but of course, they can be any colour, with spikes or not, long ears, short ears. Zog could have been a dragon on all fours, but characters are able to do a lot more if they stand up on their hind legs. I played around with a number of visual ideas, and when I got there, I knew it was Zog. He was suddenly there in front of me and, with a few little tweaks, he was born.”

Like the Gruffalo, there is something endearing and also mischievous about Zog’s eyes. The little dots that are his pupils sometimes peer backwards, a clever but subtle illustrative technique.

Illustration from Zog © Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler, 2010 (published by Alison Green Books, an imprint of Scholastic)Illustration from Zog © Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler, 2010 (published by Alison Green Books, an imprint of Scholastic)

“Well, there is a limit to what you can do with a small dot as a pupil,” Axel laughs, “but I think when I make them looking backwards, they are almost looking out of the page at the reader, hence making a connection. There is a complicity with the reader and I am pleased if that works,” explains Axel.

Although Axel and Julia Donaldson are not directly involved with the stage production of Zog, their approval is naturally sought before the design process begins. They gave full approval to Freckle Productions to create the show, with Julia saying: “I’m tremendously excited that Zog will be taking flight around the UK in this first ever stage production. Going to the theatre can be a truly magical experience, I know it will be such a thrill to see the world of Zog being brought to life on stage.”

Mike Shepherd, the show’s director and adapter, says: “We always endeavour to stick to the story and Zog is a wonderful character to bring to the stage. Zog is the simple and delightful story about a young dragon and his unlikely friendship with a young girl who has great ambitions, but into the plot we want to introduce some mystery, some wonder. Most of all I want to avoid this being a show that spoon feeds the children. They like to use their imagination, to be surprised, to be caught off guard.”

An important part of the production is the lyrical music of Johnny Flynn, actor, musician and wonderful folk singer. It was he who suggested to Mike that Zog would be a great adaptation for the stage, and Mike was struck by the story. “The resolution of the story just hooked me in,” he says. “This isn’t a tale with a classic fairy tale ending. Without giving too much away, Zog befriends a princess called Pearl who would much rather be a doctor. I can’t help but feel that kids are bombarded with so much stuff now, information, technology etc and, at the end of the day, the important message is to be kind, to care for others. This story has that message, and if that comes across, it has to be a good thing.”

Zog was first published in 2010 and won the Galaxy National Children’s Book of the Year Award. A perennial bestseller, a film of Zog, produced by Magic Light Pictures, was shown on BBC One at Christmas. It drew huge viewing figures, testament to the enduring appeal for children of wonderfully created and endearing characters, so many of which are brought to life today by Axel Scheffler and Julia Donaldson.

Zog in Surrey

Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler’s much-loved Zog is adapted and directed by Mike Shepherd (founder and artistic director of Kneehigh) with an original, live, folk score by Johnny Flynn. It is designed by Katie Sykes, and produced by Freckle Productions and Rose Theatre Kingston. Zog premieres at Rose Theatre Kingston from Thursday, February 14 to Saturday, February 23, prior to a UK tour.

To book tickets, call 020 8174 0090 or visit rosetheatrekingston.org or ZogLive.com

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