The Man Who Planted Trees [The Puppet State Theatre Company at Purcell Room]

The Man Who Planted Trees
A theatrical adaptation by Richard Medrington & Rick Conte of Jean Giono’s book L’homme qui plantait des arbres

Richard Medrington – Storyteller
Rick Conte – Puppeteer

Music by Johannes Kapsberger & Charles Trenet

Ailie Cohen – Co-director, settings & puppetsBarney Strachan – Soundscape

Reviewed by: Michael Darvell

Reviewed: 25 October, 2011
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Purcell Room

The name of French writer Jean Giono (1895-1970) may not mean much these days, but in his time he was a prolific author of novels, plays, poetry, essays and journalism. He came from a poor family in Provence and was a bank clerk until he decided that writing was to be his living. A lifelong pacifist he had great regard for the world and its problems and in some of his writings set about suggesting ways to save the planet. He wrote over thirty novels including ten that were a sequence inspired by the works of Honoré de Balzac. Giono’s fellow Provençal writer Marcel Pagnol used some of his writings for his films, including famously La femme du boulanger (1935). During World War II Giono, a peacemaker, was imprisoned as a Nazi sympathiser although he was never charged. After the war he was again imprisoned but freed without charge.

Giono continued to write and some of his other books were also filmed. He is most well-known outside of France for his allegorical tale L’homme qui plantait des arbres. It is also known as The Story of Elzéard Bouffier, the Most Extraordinary Character I Ever Met (the Readers’ Digest edition) and The Man Who Planted Hope and Reaped Happiness. It has been translated and published all over the world. Giono thought it such an important work that he declined taking any royalties, letting anybody who wanted to use it to do so freely. It was made into a thirty-minute cartoon film in Canada in 1987 and won an Oscar for Best Animation.

The Puppet State Theatre Company has adapted the story into a serio-comic piece that is totally delightful. It is a charming piece that amuses both adults and children (over seven) in equal measure, without ever losing the point of Giono’s original and important message. The Man Who Planted Trees is narrated by Jean, who could be Giono himself. He is hiking in Provence in 1910. Having run out of water, he is guided by a local shepherd to a nearby spring. The storyteller stays with the shepherd, Elzéard Bouffier, and discovers his plan to cultivate a forest in this deserted wasteland. He does so by selecting acorns and dropping them into the ground. The narrator leaves but returns years later having been injured in the First World War. By now the acorns have turned into saplings and over a period of forty years he sees the valley coming back to life with trees and fresh-water streams and eventually a whole new community moves in unaware that they owe their new surroundings to a lowly shepherd reinvigorating a dying countryside.

It is a simple but striking tale that Puppet State has taken and fashioned it in a way that appeals to the young. The narrator comes across a Dog in a basket who in appearance and attitude is not unlike Basil Brush. Between them they tell the story of the shepherd and his trees with the Dog providing most of the jokes that would not have been in Giono’s original. The Dog and the shepherd are both puppets. Richard Medrington and Rick Conte tell the story through them. Much of the humorous dialogue is improvised so can change from one performance to another. The Dog is both a guard-dog and a sheepdog: “I guard and I sheep.” This animal is so loveable that, like Basil Brush, he soon becomes very real and children adore him.

The seriousness of the story is not lost and we see that bees start coming back to the area to pollinate the lavender and other Provençal plants and there is much fun along the way as we the audience are sprayed with lavender and later, when it becomes misty, we get that too. Apparently kids just love being ‘watered’. The accompanying soundscape is a mixture of natural sounds, some music, Canarios by Kapsberger and Charles Trenet’s typically French chanson ‘Terre’. The show runs for sixty-five minutes and ends in an enchanting tableau and, although we have been highly entertained, we have also learned a thing or two about ecology. It is no wonder that this show has been a success around the world.

  • The Man Who Planted Trees is at Purcell Room at Southbank Centre, London until Friday 28 October 2011 at 11a.m. and 2 p.m.

  • Southbank Centre

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