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.
Lies have found their place as currency in politics, haven’t they? Well, it’s certainly no different than the past. The only difference lies in the medium in which propaganda is broadcast. One woman who appreciates the value of an image, claiming to have solved the Cold War within ‘five minutes’, and rubbed shoulders with history’s wealthiest, influential is the former First Lady of The Philippines, Imelda Marcos; A fascinating woman who may play the part of the innocent ‘Mother’ of the nation but is first and foremost The Kingmaker. Following the death of her husband, President Ferdinand Marcos, she has her eyes set on a new King, her son Bongbong, ascending to the leadership of the Philippines.
What starts as a documentary, seemingly offering a platform for Marcos, turns into a nightmarish, honest and cold-cut horror piece of reality. The Kingmaker is as repulsive as it is engrossing, without resorting to forced perspective. Filmmaker Lauren Greenfield masterfully stitches the truth against Marcos as an unreliable narrator, producing an insightful documentary on the obsessive allure of power, wealth and legacy.
Refusing to maintain this platform, subverting it instead, Greenfield admits that upon meeting Marcos, she was unsure of the former First Lady’s intentions. Poised with an image in mind, it takes little time to realise that for Marcos, as with her life, this is another tapestry to weave. To paint her visage once more, to outright deny, distract and cast smoke around her history. The stories she tells, the way she feigns ignorance to the billions she and her husband robbed from the Filipino public and the attempt to control the direction of the documentary, Imelda Marcos is no ‘trophy’ first lady, but a tactician.
Refuting this, Greenfield seamlessly provides rebuttals to Marcos’ attempts at drawing her narrative. Without false pretense or unneeded pathos, brutal accounts of the martial law, the sexual assault and violence the people suffered under the Marcos’ rule are played directly after interview segments. The Kingmaker’s editing is fluid, without awkward transitions of showcasing, instead noting the importance of reporting a direct truth against the lies told. We flow from Marcos’ words of vindication for her family to the imagery of poverty, a broken nation and first-hand accounts of the brutality they suffered.
Expanding on this unreliable nature, Greenfield’s documentary-style achieves a precise cinema verité in the construct of multiple scenes. Enabling multiple shots to have this ‘fly on the wall’ reach means that when Marcos’ pre-planned image fails, Greenfield captures the moment. It’s an open form of cinema where the camera is acknowledged, a raw documentary style which captures every motion, smile or servant bustling away with photos, portraits or bags filled with cash.
Reflecting her privilege, Lars Skree and Shana Hagan’s cinematography knows precisely where to focus in the Marcos family home, without obvious crassness. Framing Marcos near the stolen paintings she claims to have never owned, their cinematography forces nothing. Instead, it allows Marcos to fall on her opulence. Candidly walking, showcasing her prized Picassos or Michaelangelos, Skree and Hagan capture the decadence in which Marcos lives, contrasting it with wide shots of the countryside, which then crash into the reality of the surrounding slums of the Philippines.
The Kingmaker is a sublime piece of cinema verité, and moulds itself around the subject, acknowledging the attempts Marcos makes in constructing an image she can ‘sell’ to the world to reclaim former glory. Greenfield’s film is no less brave than it is insightfully smart, rather than direct opposition to the Marcos family, it humbly presents indisputable accounts to provide a balanced documentary, mesmeric in its deconstruction of dictatorial corruption and its analysis of lies.
Direction, Costume Design & Mask/Puppetry Co-Design by Julia Taymor
1994, The Lion King, was by and large a tremendous gamble for The Walt Disney Company. It would go on to break records, particularly for animation, launch platinum soundtracks and define generations emotional state. An extravagance of stage enchantment there’s little to say which hasn’t been said before. If you’ve been lucky enough to visit the Pride Lands, the production is as compelling as ever, and if you’re a fresh cub to the Savannah sun – how we envy your ability to see this for the first time.
With the break of dawn, and those familiar notes courtesy of Thandazile Soni’s Rafiki, a sensory ripple of tingled necks erupts throughout The Edinburgh Playhouse. By the climax of The Circle of Life, Walt Disney’s The Lion King has made its mark, a literal stamp on musical theatre. The brilliance of Elton John & Tim Rice’s original score, with a deeper infusion of African tones and vocals, set against the hued orange dusk of the Savannah plains, is the playground of puppets who take inspiration from every cultural aspect of African, European and Asian design.
Born to be king, Simba is a young cub who can’t wait to claim his crown. His folly though lies in this blind-sighted ambition, naïve to the dangers of the Kingdom and those closer to home, Simba is usually under the gaze of Royal advisor Zazu, or his father Mufasa, king of the Pridelands. Envious, irredeemable and callous, Scar, Simba’s uncle, finds the opportunity to seize control of the pride and eliminate both his brother and his nephew.
How does one emulate a timeless narrative which captured to hearts of generations, crafting a stage version of something which is already a loose adaptation of a Shakespearean classic? The answer is that Allers and Mecchi’s book blends the sources closer together, while Julie Taymor’s phenomenal direction and design elevate the production into a unique visage, The Lion King maintains the 1994 films plot, characters and structure, with only a few additions. Its framework is less animated, for obvious reasons, but in place of this, it achieves a sense of realness, even with the vibrant hues of physical prop design, masks and puppetry.
From the aesthetic to the audio and lighting, The Lion King is an extravagant parade of sensory thrill. Donald Holder’s lighting, casts a spectrum of emotion and tone, complimenting the piece flawlessly, ranging from the bold colours of I Just Can’t Wait To Be King, to the softer mutes of Soni’s interludes as Rafiki’s marvellous presence captivates us all. Award-winning, identifiable and reflecting both the life on the African plains, and the death which tragically can follow, Taymor & Michael Curry’s puppet design, from the mousiest to the tallest is nothing shy of perfection, with a variety of designs, including Japanese Bunraku puppets.
Scorching the imagination, The Lion King’s stirring search into the difficulties of loss, on such scale is as inspirational as ever. The entirety of Simba’s evolution, from innocence into, essentially, depression and his journey to acceptance and eventual forgiveness, not only from his pride but his own, is told entirely through the score, intensified by visual effects and Jean-Luc Guizonne’s powerful rendition of Mufasa. The realisation of his father’s words to return home, spoken from a stage enveloping mask, to the score of Under The Stars is a maudlin moment of tender beauty which showcases Jonathan Gill’s conduction of the orchestra, and Dashaun Young’s role as Adult Simba’s progression out of the darkness and the vast shadow cast by Scar.
A resident supporter of the bad boys, even we must accept the revulsion one expects with Scar, notorious as one of the few successful villains who “removes” his obstacles in pursuit of the crown. Silver-tongued yet so roguishly charismatic, Richard Hurst emulates the original depiction of the character but morphs into the physicality of Taymor’s costume design. Older, less agile, Taymor’s Scar is a planner, a tactician, but the sculpt of his headpiece, as remarkable as it may be, succeeds only with Hurst’s facial expression. Tip-toeing the line, Hurst’s performance leans on exaggeration, requiring to do so to remain sinister, without distancing the audience.
In a choice manoeuvre, though no less pleasant, his original stand-out number from the film, Be Prepared, is turned from a fast-paced, volatile number into a spoken song. Hurst’s position as a graduate of The Royal Academy comes, naturally, with control of his vocals, which is evident in his following number The Madness of King Scar, elevates Scar into a Shakespearean foe, reminiscent of Jeremy Irons iconic performance. Quintessentially Machiavellian, Hurst’s performance, heralding the dawning of a new age, is only successful with his denizens of the Elephant Graveyard.
Looking to Chow Down on what they can, Shenzi, Banzai & Ed, the slack-jawed, cackling trio of Hyena’s return but with an added musical number for their stage outing, performed by Rebecca Omogbehin, Simon Trinder & Alan McHale. As intimidating as the characters may be, helped with the hunched, looming presence they pervade, they serve as an example of The Lion King’s key strength is its side characters and humour. The Hyena’s, Timon & Pumba and most certainly Zazu quite often rob a few scenes away from our leads.
Matthew Forbes, frequently breaking the fourth wall to advertise Disney’s other properties, is a delight to watch prance, frolic and stress around the stage, fleeing after our Young Simba and Nala. Leaping to the other end of the spectrum, where Frobe’s comedic talents dominate, Jossylnn Hlenti’s Nala and Jochebel Ohene MacCarthy’s Sarabi propel the lionesses to the forefront. Hlenti’s attitude, her precise movement to Garth Fagan’s choreography commands a stage presence equal to that of Ohene Maccarthy’s stoic authority.
Particularly for the lionesses, Fagan’s rhythmic choreography is powerfully adept, traditional dance mingles with a performance element of movement for the puppets. From the heavy beats of the Hyena’s break dancing to the looser, community feel of One by One, with free-flowing birds and the big number He Lives In You, The Lion King is as much a production for the dance enthusiasts as it is the vocalists and the storytellers.
So, in the immortal words of Scar himself; ‘Be Prepared’. Be prepared for a pride’s golden age, a glorious production which celebrates life, redemption and rejects the wallowing doldrums of regret. A story for the ages, from Shakespeare to the Savannah, The Lion King from stage conception has been a pinnacle of musical theatre, of artistic construction and as the King returns to Edinburgh, there’s an understandable desire to recapture childhoods and introduce new fans to The Circle of Life.