After thirteen years and with over 1,700 performances under their belts, you would think that Puppet State Theatre – the company behind The Man Who Planted Trees – would pack up their acorns and have a bit of a rest. It’s a pleasure to say that the company are still performing this astoundingly delightful show, and are bringing theatre to people of all ages with a tale that is sadly more vital than ever.
In 2019 this piece is glaringly important. Not only because of its ecological standpoint, but also due to its nuanced themes of neighbourly respect, kindness and appreciation. Adapted from the short story by Jean Giono, the show follows Elzéard Bouffier, a shepherd who single-handedly begins to re-plant 10,000 trees. He does so without seeking praise or glory – it is only Jean (and Bouffier’s dog) who realise the tremendous feat the man undertakes.
It is remarkably rare to find a production which appeals to the masses without cheap tactics, relying simply on the power of its storytelling and the raw, emotional heart of its message. It’s spectacular that so much can be communicated here with through theatrical magic, exquisite world-building and cracking humour.
With the same puppets in use for over a decade, cherished by puppeteers and audience alike, there’s a deep warmth to this multi-sensory and engaging production. The power and importance of The Man Who Planted Trees only increases with age. It is an exquisite balance of humour, emotion, heart, war, pain and beauty. This isn’t only something to catch during the Fringe – this is something to see anytime you can.
Some might find familiarity in the tale of Apollo & Daphne, at the very least, a spark of recognition could occur with the idea of a young woman, a nymph, surrendering her flesh into bark, transforming into a tree to avoid Apollo’s amorous assault. Daphne, Or Hellfire is a new script from Isla Cowan, a rising Scottish playwright who aims to raise Daphne from the folly of mythology, instilling her with a core of feminism and tie the myth into our blindness towards climate change.
A young couple, hopelessly romantic, disgustingly so, Daphne has her career, as well as a passion for ecological studies, landscaping and promoting our ignorance of climate change. Apollo, dashing as ever, is a young marketing guru, who just so happens to be working with a housing development. A twisted parable for the 21st century, Cowan drags Daphne and Apollo from a world of Gods, acropolises and Ambrosia, into a realm of capitalism, property and rice-pudding.
We’ll say this, while other productions dance around the subject of our planets violation at the hands of everyday capitalism, Cowan’s work takes no interest in a soft approach. It’s a refreshingly volatile piece, which has intention behind the writing. There is no sugar coating or skirting the issue – Daphne, Or Hellfire is an impactful production which refuses to bow to ease of access, keeping its source material close to the vein of the story, while wrapping it in a powerful eco-feminist coating. In doing so, cracks occur in the overall neatness of the show.
An issue lies with Apollo’s depiction. Taking from his inspiration, Apollo is meant to come across as brash, boastful and encapsulating everyday attitudes surrounding the environment and waste. When in reality, Patrick Errington’s Apollo is just too damned nice. He comes across as borderline boastful, but all too mortal. Enabling a connection with the audience, who can sympathise with Apollo’s protestations at recycling, rejected gifts and pursuing a career, Errington is too human, too easy to understand with and at times, places Daphne as the frustrating of the two.
A powerhouse on stage, Cowan’s conviction in her performance is as strong as her writing. It takes time for a presence to build, but this is in line with the character as Daphne emerges from the shadow of her partner and father’s constant pressure. By the finale, Cowan’s physicality, seething with a suppressed, is impressive, intimidating and demonstrates her performance capability along with her writing. Daphne is no more a nymph of legend, she is a woman. Proud, determined but most importantly – human.
How fitting, that in the original mythos, it is an arrow of lead which begins Daphne’s downfall from fierce nymph, and here it is the lead-laden air we breathe in which Daphne chooses her form to be at one with the earth. Cowan’s writing is at most impressive here, subverting the narrative she adapts it from, taking Daphne’s cry for help and morphing it into the empowerment of femininity, tying it to her relationship with the earth. If anything, it’s painful to realise that a portion of the script is perhaps too sharp for a general audience, who most likely miss out on the nuances of these portions of the script.
Here, is both the heel and strength of Daphne, or Hellfire. It’s a masterful piece of poetic writing from a new playwright, which leans heavily on ambitions, risks alienating an audience. Cowan is a playwright that any in Scotland would do well to keep an eye too, channelling her very own hellfire to scorch the earth, her passion evident, her aggression tightened into her pen.
Instilling our most cherished festive tale, with the façade of our fair city, should be a winning combination which sits alongside holly and ivy, wine and mistletoe or the Queen’s Speech and a power nap. An Edinburgh Christmas Carol places Ebenezer Scrooge, the original curmudgeon, on the cold, cobbled streets of Edinburgh, where he may bump into a few familiar faces. In recent years The Royal Lyceum has taken us to Neverland, to Wonderland and even into Narnia, but nothing feels quite as right as being on your doorstep.
The script, largely, perhaps too large, remains unchanged. With the inclusion of Greyfriars’ Bobby providing wonderfully inventive puppetry and a few gags to boot, the story of A Christmas Carol has been stuck onto the streets of Edinburgh. Crawford Logan is, an approachable Scrooge. Miserable as ever, there’s a distinct lack of animosity, as the performance is rich and has conviction, he’s an absolute fit for an Edinburgh Scrooge, but there’s a needed edge to Logan’s characterisation. We find it difficult to buy into his postulations of the workhouse, decreasing the surplus populations and the stories darker moments. Herein is the key issue you may find, Tony Cownie’s adaptation is just too sweet to stomach.
An overlying view of the production’s intention, and one’s taste with dictate your enjoyment of An Edinburgh’s Christmas Carol. The calibre of the Lyceum’s Christmas productions is of tremendous standard, which subverts the usual paradigms we view with a text. Whether this is Peter Pan from the perspective of Wendy, or Alice in Wonderland, emphasising the macabre outlook, the psychosis of the drama and the absurdity. An Edinburgh Christmas Carol, by extension, is rather safe. There is nothing wholly offensive to the production, it is by and large an entertaining, festive production which warms the heart which beats beneath the chortling chest – but substantially removes itself from Dicken’s, or even Auld Reekie’s haunted past.
For first and foremost, A Christmas Carol is a ghost story. And in quite the turn-about, it is neither the haunting apparition of Christmas Future, nor the nostalgic pains of Past which are the memorable performances, but rather the often-overlooked Ghost of Christmas Present, or rather ingeniously, The Ghost of Christmas Nouadays. Steven McNicoll is the quintessential being of mirthful jolly, with his red sack and ginger beard, Nouadays is the epitome of a Scottish Christmas. McNichol’s presence brings a needed vitality to the spirit realm, following an unmemorable Ghost of Langsyne, and the grim prospects of the Ghost of Ayont from Eva Traynor and Taqi Nazeer.
The ingenuity for this Spectre, Ayont, a headless drummer boy is colossal in imagination, though also in size. As his rhythmic beats echo into the night, this is the section of the tale we sadists enjoy. The warnings Scrooge endures, the fate which may befall the selfish man as he realises the suffering he has caused and the path to redemption. The prevalent issue of tone direction is at its most evident here, where the production still cannot grasp the haunting of Dicken’s classic with Cownie’s direction. As Scrooge, in what should be his final moments of crushing realisation against the sombre beat of a headless drummer, sits jarringly lost among uneven humour and awkward delivery.
This humour, which strays into Pantomime territory at times, dips from over-the-top, obvious and into misplaced. Choice gags, which should be hitting the rafters, fall short at the audiences’ feet as a few timing issues pervade. In tune with every ounce of the humour, running away with the loudest, most significant deliveries is Grant O’Rourke. His performance is distinctive, even against the choruses onstage. The moments are short but considerably steady in appearances. His chemistry with the puppets is fluid, responding to Edie Edmundson’s puppetry naturally and with exceptional effect.
Tiny Tim, as tiny, as can be, is a scale rod-puppet along with Bobby the dug, the very same of Greyfriars’ Kirkyard fame. Cownie has spliced Bobby rather well with the story, a sprinkling of flavour rather than a forceful injection of a narrative. It’s a connection with the community, and the craft of the puppets matches the technical levels of stage design.
What we have is a decent production, akin to those gifts we receive from aunts and uncles; pleasant, harmless, but fails to live up to expectations. Now, these are not the words of a Scrooge. The implication is that such tremendous talent, innovative design-work and ideas seem to have been watered down. It’s frustrating, given Tony Cownie’s strikingly sensational works with The Belle’s Stratagem and Thon Man Molière that An Edinburgh Christmas Carol fails to hit the right notes, there seems to have been pulled punches out of worry from Edinburgh’s most dreadful force – middle-class parents.
An Edinburgh Christmas Carol runs at The Royal Lyecum until January 4th 2020. Tickets available here: