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NB: as of 23 September 2008, all new artSMart articles are being published on the site news.artsmart.co.za.

WOOD FOR THE TREES (article first published : 2005-07-9)

For those unfamiliar with the expression, “You can’t see the wood for the trees”, it could apply in the sense that we can get so bogged down with daily routine, nagging irritations, and petty worries that we can’t see further than that which is immediate. If we stood back and saw the wider picture we would probably be in a better position to experience fulfilment rather than depression.

Our hero in Wood for the Trees, currently running at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, starts off in a depressed state, miserable and aimlessly heading in various directions. In the middle of preparing the stage with a wondrous and innovative selection of props, all the while explaining vigorously what they are doing, the grey-suited cast members – run after him with his hat, his fishing rod and his map because, as they explain, he needs them.

Once set upon his journey, Jean heads for the hills. Literally. He climbs the mountain, looking for the place where he believes his father went fishing – he also needed to find some breathing space and went out one day and never came back. The journey is arduous, he is caught in a fierce wind, drawn on towards a church by the sound of children singing hymns, explores a tumbledown building (wonderful sequence) and eventually meets up with an old man who is furiously planting trees.

He goes back home only to return several times, with war breaking out in between. He decides to tackle officialdom to preserve the area and this made for a hilarious scene. Back he goes to the mountain where there has been a tragic change. He is faced with the option of going forward or backward and this decision marks an exhilarating end to the play.

Wood for the Trees is produced by Jaci Smith, also the director, and actor Gys de Villiers along with James Cuningham and Helen Iskander, who gave us the wonderful Baobabs Don’t Grow Here. The fourth cast member is Rob van Vuuren.

James Cuningham is a sensitively doleful Jean while Gys, Helen and Rob provide the other characters along with some help from a variety of paper puppets ranging in size from the miniscule to the gigantic.

During all the years I worked with Springbok Radio, I was highly familiar with the props table and delighted in watching the performers produce microphone magic with gravel boxes, pots and pans, bowls of water and grass (tape in a plastic bag). In order to make sound effects credible, those handling them must virtually breathe with the performer, matching his footsteps … almost breathing with him.

This is an original piece devised by the company based on Jean Giono’s short story The Man Who Planted Trees. It dealt with a shepherd in Provence, France, who planted thousands of oak and beech trees in the 37 years between 1910 and his death in 1947

Wood for the Trees is a magical visual experience created by four highly skilled performers – the action is compelling from start to finish with some achingly poignant moments in between. Don’t miss it. – Caroline Smart




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