ABUZZ WITH CREATIVE LIFE-FORCE
The Man Who Planted Trees is presented in a wonderfully relaxed yet whimsical style and tone. Pitched, according to the Capital E National Arts Festival brochure, at 7-14 year olds, this is a story, play and production that respects its audience and doesn’t play down to them.
Silence is the first thing to draw us in: the anticipation of what may come, as Richard Medrington strolls on, takes a seat and contemplates his surroundings. The simple puppet theatre set he’s in front of features a rustic house, outhouse and washing line. Stylised trees, made from hessian and cane, stand either side. There is a sound of insects: nature at work …
A second man (Rick Conte) slips in behind the set and next minute a Dog in a basket is greeting us all, and Jean (Medrington). The whimsical word-play that riddles the ensuing chat is hugely enjoyed by the children from Queen Margaret and Wellesley Colleges, who pack Downstage Theatre.
Apart from the puns, the metaphysical whimsy inherent in the Dog’s concern about “the guy who’s always behind me” enriches the fun we are having, as Jean prepares to tell the story and Dog scores a role (not a roll – sausage, filled or otherwise – although once he ‘hits his stride’, he could be said to be on one).
Also known as The Story of Elzéard Bouffier, The Most Extraordinary Character I Ever Met, and The Man Who Planted Hope and Reaped Happiness, French author Jean Giono’s allegorical tale has even more urgent meaning now than when it was first published in 1953, in the devastated wake of two World Wars.
Another hand-held puppet (Conte) brings the shepherd, Bouffier, ‘to life’ – Jean greets him in French, without translation – and the epic story plays out, of how one man slowly but surely, over decades that span those wars, turns a desolate wasteland in Provence into a micro-climate that literally buzzes with the intricate, life-giving chain-reactions of nature. But this is no cutesy ‘Johnny Appleseed’ fable. Bouffier is fallible. He makes mistakes and learns from them.
He is also an unsung hero, as politicians and dignitaries ignore the actions of a lowly shepherd and bask in all the glory themselves – then threaten to destroy it for short-term gain (if ‘gain’ can be used to mean fuelling the war machine). It’s great to hear such platitudes as “Time is money and money is power!” held up for questioning. Not that ‘progress’ is cast as always bad: the value of modern housing and thriving neighbourhoods is indicated with new houses replacing the old shacks.
The plethora of follow-up topics that arise from this play must be a joy for any teacher, not least because the way the story gets told makes it inevitable that the children will be inquisitive and keen to investigate further and play with the ideas.
The decision to make no secret of the simple storytelling devices that enliven the production will also stimulate creativity, without a doubt. The way perfume is wafted into the air is a new one on me. And the manifestation of mist and rain brings its own chain-reaction of delight and excitement to the audience.
Any story about life – because that’s what the forest has brought to Provence – would not be complete without death being mentioned and this is done exquisitely.
The engagement of the children with every facet of The Man Who Planted Trees is palpable. The theatre is abuzz with a creative life-force that will spread, forest-like, into the wider world thanks to the seed planted this way on this day.