Edinburgh Fringe 2021
Two men in vest and a dog in a basket come out on the stage and weave a timeless story using puppets and magical set-pieces. Beautifully and sensitively crafted, and as poignant and funny for adults as it is for children. A must see show.
The hum of cicadas of a Provencal summer surround us as two men and a dog tell the story of Giono’s lovely homage to nature and human determination, The Man Who Planted Trees. Rick Conte and Richard Medrington delight us from the start in their gentle comedic opening patter where The Dog (a hand puppet manipulated by Conte) lets us know a big secret “there is a guy who is always behind me.” The Dog is a character found in the Giono story and here is expanded to become a central voice, becoming the comic relief just when the pathos of the story brings the viewers to tears: “the maple trees all died, but the real problem came when we tried to plant the Danish pais-trees”.
The story itself is a simple one: the story of a traveler to the desolate and arid foothills in Provence, where the greed and poverty of the charcoal burners, has led to a complete deforestation of the hills. The traveler encounters a solitary shepherd, Elzeard Bouffier, who offers him shelter. As they come to know each other we understand that Bouffier is a widower who has decided to live alone, taking care of his sheep and planting acorns. And so the story evolves: the traveler leaves and time passes, two world wars shake and scar the earth, and the shepherd continues to plant. The narrator/traveler returns after WW1 “in need of peace” and finds a haze of green trees stretching for many kilometers, and Elzeard continuing to plant. By the time WW2 is over, the forest is grown and continues to expand, the trees have encouraged water to rise up and streams now flow, a village is rebuilt and gardens grow.
The convention used in the storytelling is unhurried, and magical- the two performers create a world where they tell the story and we see the charcoal burners village via a toy village representation, paper birds fly over-head in a joyous flight wafted on a stick, and the soulful puppet of the shepherd is manipulated in full sight of the audience, climbing up a hill, and planting yet one more tree. The aging dog (who feels somewhat like a curious and opinionated 5-year old, but now with white eyebrows and a bee-keepers hat on) tells us that the secret of his longevity is …pilates. The life giving water drawn up from a well is depicted by a large tin bucket with the old shepherd slowly cranking the pulley and pulling up a miniature tin bucket. The audience waits eagerly with the traveler to see if there is anything in it. We are completely invested.
I have always found pleasure in the dignity of Giono’s little book, and its message that diligent and thoughtful action can create regeneration. In this Man Who Planted Trees there is great emotional heart in the telling and great skill in the adaptation. Script credits are shared between the two performers and the puppet-maker/director , Ailie Cohen. Clearly this production has been toured and performed for many years, and part of the joy of watching the story unfold is the sure-handedness of the two performers. After the first minute I was entirely drawn into the production online- and enjoyed the zoom talk-back afterwards with the audience and Giono’s grand-daughter (who tells us that Giono himself thought he would be remembered above all, for this little book). This is a must see show.