From Sketch to Rail: The designing of the 4000 Miles poster

Elizabeth Lass 23 January 2014

During these bleak times, the streets of Cambridge are bare and dark. But if you’re mourning the flowering bushes that cheer up exam term, consider the railings for a look at Cambridge’s other form of indigenous decoration: posters.

Take 4000 Miles, the critically lauded play written by Amy Herzog, about to begin at the Corpus Playrooms. Directed by David Rattigan and Matthew Lee, this production is collaborative on all levels—the poster is the brainchild of Rattigan and local artist and illustrator Alex Hahn. You may have noticed it, especially if you’ve an eye for Soviet propaganda or graphic novels: Hahn cites amongst Charles Burns, author of Black Hole, amongst his influences, and Rattigan is so excited by Soviet art that he sent the artist images of Vera Mukhina’s monumental statue Worker and Kolkhoz Woman as a model.

The story deals with major and minor tragedies suffered by aging Vera, once married to a prominent communist academic, and her idealistic, cycling-mad grandson Leo. Reflections of the play’s themes are manifested in unexpected visual clues that Hahn describes as “sparks” that come to him whilst sketching. Leo holds a bike seat aloft for his hammer, and though feisty, sickle-wielding Vera could pass for a ninety-three year old version of Rodchenko’s Lilya Brik, her scarf billows behind like her ubiquitous dressing gown.

Hahn’s working process was thorough. Drafts and separate images of fonts, logos, figure sketches and backgrounds were sent back and forth, before he outlined each piece and used Photoshop to colour and blend them together. He acknowledges that Cambridge theatres have doubted the power of “picture posters” over photography; posters like these, however, prove the potential of conceptual illustration.

As a visual counterpart to the main piece, posters often go unappreciated. But their importance is meaningful—as Rattigan says, “the play starts with the poster.” So have a good gaze at them next time you’re trudging along the cobblestones, and you’ll see more than just advertisement. These are ephemeral cultural signifiers, miniature graphic windows into the labour and efforts of our peers, and more work goes into them than you might imagine.

4000 Miles begins at the Corpus Playrooms on Tuesday 21st January
Alex Hahn’s work can be found on