MY SIX-YEAR-OLD is into outlandishly armed robot gladiators. For my three-year-old, it’s SpongeBob, nothing else. To see them captivated by an environment-themed puppet show from Scotland about a French shepherd who devotes his life to planting trees was beyond surprising.
But then Puppet State Theatre’s adaptation of the French author Jean Giono’s 1953 story L’homme qui plantait des arbres is one of the most touching and effective pieces of children’s theatre I’ve seen for a long time. In fact, it’s the most completely satisfying piece of theatre playing in Sydney right now.
The story begins in 1910 with the narrator Jean (Richard Medrington) running into a shepherd, Elzeard Bouffier, and his tatty dog (voiced and operated by Rick Conte) on the denuded, dried-out hillsides of Provence. Bouffier, he learns, is planting trees to replace those cut down by generations of charcoal burners. Every day, without fail, he plants 100 seeds in the morning, 100 in the evening. A friendship develops – make that two – that spans four decades, two world wars and the growing of a huge forest.
The language and cadence of the show is pitched at adults; there’s no talking down to the audience. Conte is terrifically droll as Dog, whose canine joie de vivre extends into an improbable old age.
The story is heartwarming, the message clear and the comic banter woven through it is lively and unforced. It’s hard to believe the two have performed this show more than 1500 times. All the relationships – between man and dog, between performer and audience and human and puppet – are beautifully crafted and full of telling detail. Ailie Cohen’s homespun props, puppets and set, Barney Strachan’s nature soundscapes, and the scent of lavender and mint wafting over the audience make this a pleasure for all the senses.
By Jason Blake, Nov 30 2010