By Debbie Cannon
Fringe crowds may throng just outside on the Royal Mile, but those fortunate enough to be in the audience of The Man Who Planted Trees by the Puppet State Theatre inside the Scottish Storytelling Centre will find themselves transported to the wilds of early 20th century Provence and the quiet calm of a shepherd’s stone hut (albeit in the company of the world’s funniest talking dog) by a heady mix of captivating storytelling, puppetry and rural scents.
The play is based on Jean Giono’s story of Elzéard Bouffier, a shepherd who one day begins to transform the desolate area in which he lives by single-handedly planting thousands of trees. Over a period of forty years during which wars and politicians come and go, Elzéard continues his work, visited periodically by our storyteller Jean.
The story has a clear environmental message, as well as a strong truth at its core: that the simple, anonymous actions of one individual can make a difference to the lives of thousands. As with all the best storytelling, however, the play never preaches, leading us effortlessly to an understanding – and this is truly great storytelling. Moreover, it’s full of comedy, of which the main perpetrator is Dog, an exceptionally cute puppet who had all of the children in the audience (together with their parents and grandparents) giggling every time he appeared. Dog clearly has a career awaiting him on the comedy circuit if he can ever get away from ‘the man who always seems to be behind him’. It may be based on a gentle tale, but this performance has more than enough to engage and entertain the most sophisticated child.
Performers Rick Conte and Richard Medrington deliver a combination of expert storytelling and captivating puppetry – emotion, comedy and the coming of old age are conveyed with effortlessly simple movements. Both performers move at times between stage and audience, and from the first irreverant and Gallic-themed public announcement any barriers between actors and audience are broken down to create a relaxed, open connection. Clever use of lighting, sound and music, as well as smell, create a convincing sense of the rural environment and the changes in it. Director and designer Ailie Cohen has created a beautiful series of puppets and models, which work alongside the deceptively simple set to communicate the play’s themes.
The Man Who Planted Trees is already an established favourite that has toured around the world to great acclaim. Catch it at the Netherbow Theatre, and be enchanted.