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.
Written & Directed by Pauline Lockhart and Ben Harrison
Our nightmares may be home to Kelpies, Redcaps and Banshees but for a different culture, who grew with the stories of Chinese writer Pu Songling, who five centuries ago wrote over five-hundred tales of demons, beasts and spirits, this is the fuel of their midnight imaginations. Join us in expanding your horizons of folklore but be careful not to stray far from the path of twilight, or these Strange Tales may claim you before the morning light.
Tying a creative meta to the narrative, as these tales are told, we come to realise that the deeper we delve into the heart of fantasy, the less likely we are to escape, enveloped, seduced by these spun tales of fox spirits, ghoulish lovers and small creatures living in our gaze. Just eight of Pu Songling’s stories are premiered for the first time on a British stage here in Edinburgh, but will any of the audience be able to sleep this evening?
Spearheading this revival, Grid Iron Theatre Company are offering more than a mere re-telling, instead, a conjuring of Songling’s creations. The stage of the Traverse is raised off the ground to intimately thrust directly into the audience. Karen Tennant’s set design offers quite enough detail to transport us to the humble settings of a storytellers canvas. Torn cloth, laden with symbols, drape into the crowds below, where one can’t help but feel a chill in tonight’s performance, despite the warmth of our hosts.
And luckily, we have three spinners of tales to safely guide us, well, we hope. Co-writing the premise, from Ewan MacDonald’s translation, Pauline Lockhart is the Scottish core of Strange Tales, bringing a rich humour, which is the most fluid of the three, though Robin Khor Yong Kuan brings a roguish charm to the antics. Performances vary, With Lockhart’s young lad from Paisley seeking the talents of ancient masters from the East a standout role, as is Luna Dai’s take on the antagonistic fortune teller. It is though, a combination of sleight of hand, magic and some finger puppets which captivates the audiences. As Khor Yong Kuan’s ‘Big Sneeze’ takes us intently out of reality and into the moment.
With a cacophony of stories, ghouls, effects and characters – it was bound to cause a tripping hazard. There’s an ounce too much, which unbalances the performance and stifles what should be a spectacular finale. In a twist to the parable, Lockhart confronts the three spirts of Paper, Clay and Light, previously shunning the warnings of delving too deep into these tales. The spirit of paper, another of Fergus Dunnet’s live effects is a strong start, but it is video design from Bright Side Studios which spellbindingly ties together the arts of modern technology and ancient storytelling.
That said, even with the power of the Light spirit, and impressive fight choreography from Philip Ho, it feels excessive in the closing act, as Pauline tosses and uses physical prowess, rather than wit or word, to evade the spirits. It seems to be acting against the general lessons, where many of the evil spirits are outwitted, only resorting to physical violence when cornered. Instead, here it feels shoehorned in, that with all the grandeur of puppets, visuals and tone, there was no way to write their way out of the scenario causing abrupt conclusions.
At its height, Strange Tales is sumptuous stage sorcery which places storytelling above all else and echoes a profound admiration for culture, narrative and theatre. This is a quintessentially traditional show for the festive period, it just so happens to be a tradition many here are unfamiliar with. Fusing a Chinese and Malaysian Chinese heritage with a Caledonian tongue, Strange Tales is a welcome addition to the world of folklore, a triumph of bracing theatre.
We will never live to see every truth unearthed. We will never find all which has been buried beneath the grains of sand about our own, our parents and companions lives. No matter how hard we try to uncover these, to ponder them – we just can’t do it.
Any familiar with the courageous steps which Mark Lockyer has accomplished in recent years regarding his own mental wellbeing might recognise themes through Keep on Walking Federico. To refer to it as a ‘follow-up’ to his previous production Living with the Lights On wouldn’t be entirely incorrect, but this also stands as a solitary piece. The real grounding feat is that regardless of foreknowledge of Lockyer’s history the production accomplishes a closeness and identifiability with its audience.
Exploring perhaps the second most relatable aspect of life following our own identities – is that of our parents and where we come from. To really answer questions on ourselves, we have to know where we came from and how we came to be. So, Lockyer finds himself in Spain, responding to correspondence about his Father’s history. On the advice of his therapist, Lockyer embarks on a trip to reconnect with his parents, particularly his lesser-known Father.
To help guide Lockyer through his journey are a colourful cast of characters we have no issue in believing are real, despite their overblown nature. All given life, individuality and manners by Lockyer himself. From the enigmatic, envy-inspiring though deliciously named Dr Bueno to the rotund Dutchman that is Damon, Lockyer has encountered enough people to stage a series of plays. The physical transformation for each is impressive, accents accompanying most of them. His Mother though receives a different kind of performance.
The heart of the show rests in these interactions with his departed Mother, the gravitas too, is located here. Powerful messages surrounding death, lost opportunities and the value of parents exist in these snippets. Though suspicions lie that her characterisation is exaggerated, pushed for the stage, Lockyer portrays her with love, determination and in one scene, the monumental power only a Mother could display.
Dedication to enticing an audience’s focus down such a personal journey, even if staged with comedic elements is tricky. Lockyer’s writing is fully engrossing, luckily – we relate to the story on some level to find a reason to become invested. What furthers this is the performance put into it, Keep on Walking Federico is crafted with tremendous passion, which director Alice Malin and the Actors Touring Company are no doubt proud of.
Staged sparingly, our set is simple on the surface, yet conceals many secrets. Its design in relation to the narrative is brilliant. Gradually as Lockyer uncovers his father’s history or his mother’s heroics the set evolves with him, revealing more secrets. Geraldine Williams design works wonders with the clean-cut lighting design by Christopher Nairne.
Transitions, in an otherwise stripped back production, are irksome. Far from poor, they are complex and require adjustment when gauging which character Lockyer is playing, followed by what time period. From an early age, we encounter his mother frequently towards the end of her life. Max Pappenheim’s sound design signals a shift, an ethereal whirring. It works, but it’s the only character interaction to receive one, so change feels sudden, stifling the flow.
The production has issues with flow and wobbly transitions, but manages to keep us invested in its overall story. It does this with recognisable themes, though more importantly a notable, affectionate performance by Mark Lockyer. Keep on Walking Federico is poetically constructed, rekindling an appreciation of our parents.