Sunday Times Magazine, Malaysia

19th October 2008

Make Time For This Puppet Story

Puppeteers Richard Medrington and Rick Conte of the Edinburgh State Puppet Theatre Company, with the help of Dog, an endearing, loud-mouthed button-eyed dog with a bit of a hearing problem showed what an award-winning team could do to breathe life into a simple story of tree planting.

Jean Giono’s The Man Who Planted Trees was first published in 1953. It’s a story narrated by a youth who had gone on a hiking holiday in 1910. Passing through areas populated only by wild lavender, he ran out of drinking water.

A shepherd named Elzeard Bouffier helped him. Later he learnt that the shepherd was planting trees in the barren land – 100 seeds in the morning and another 100 in the evening, every day.

A friendship developed that was to span 40 years. By the time Bouffier died, there was a great thriving forest, full of life and beauty.

Although Bouffier is a fictional character, the essence of the story is very much alive.

Nobel Peace Prize Winner 2004, Wangari Maathai and her Green Belt Movement planted more than 40 million trees in Kenya and in her words: “Human beings cannot thrive in a place where the natural environment has been degraded.”

And in Sangamner, Maharashtra, India, 45 million trees have been planted since 2006 by the Dandakaranya Movement. Led by octogenarian Bhausaheb Thorat, the movement made a pledge in July 2008 to plant a further 25 million seeds and 450,000 saplings.

Watching the show, it is easy to appreciate the creative talent of the Edinburgh Puppet State Theatre Company and see why The Man Who Planted Trees won the Eco Prize for Creativity 2007 and the Total Theatre Award for Story Theatre 2008.

Medrington, slipped seamlessly in and out of his roles as the storyteller and the hiker-narrator. Dog was delightful as himself.

Dog was voiced and performed by Conte who also managed the shepherd, a politician, the sheep, birds and fanned us with gusts of fragrance.

Dog was the one who livened things up. In fact, the dialogue between Medrington and Dog was hilarious and had the audience – young and old – in stitches. The Dog bedtime routine was a gem.

The simplicity of the set and the graceful movements of the two performers made watching the show a joy.

Watching the two puppeteers work their magic on stage set me wondering as to how such theatre would breathe life into the Malaysian national school curriculum. It is interactive, funny and lively.

An hour at a show like this would leave an immense positive impression in the hearts and minds of the children.

The entertainment factor aside, this beautifully crafted performance draws upon our innermost desire to be courageous and to do what is right. Education is more than swotting over books. It will make more sense when it touches the heart.

Lim Ang Nei, Sunday People – Sunday Times Magazine, Malaysia