Not only does this surprising topic make a compelling drama, it holds its young audience absolutely captivated.
The character of Fraxi (Agathe) herself is both a symbol for all infected ash trees and a compelling character in her own right. Formally, Agathe’s performance is based on some springy, light-footed dancing, which the children find mesmerising. The name Fraxi, we are told, is based on folklore surrounding ash trees. This brings a ceremonial feel to the play, especially given Fraxi’s role in nurturing and blessing a young baby, who grows up to be a forester (played by Brendan Hellier). Annie Hiner’s majestic costume design for Fraxi supports this, the tree’s colours changing each season: different tatters adorn the browns and greens of Fraxi’s coat; a different crown – of twigs or leaves – crests her head.
This pageantry aesthetic unites, surprisingly congruously, with elements that are more like an educational video. A child’s (Amelia Szypczynska) voice-over explains what is happening in the story. Her script (written by Jack Dickson) is full of facts and figures, including an explanation of photosynthesis. In fact, accompanying the play is an exhibit with educational displays and a video which will help the audience consolidate what they have learnt.
As ash dieback emerges in the narrative, Fraxi’s story gains a real sense of danger. The disease itself is clad in back, a little like a ninja, with metallic spikes on its back. Its combative sequence with Fraxi is bold and menacing, an elemental battle of growth and destruction. In this conflict, he play is very honest about the topic of death. I will warn parents that Fraxi’s struggle culminates in a heartbreaking sequence with which more sensitive children may need guidance. This segment, though, is handled deftly by Dickson’s script, which extols the beauty of lifecycles; the new life that comes from old.
The play, however, is rather reticent about deforestation. Earlier in the story, the narrator reassures Fraxi that a woodcutter resting under her branches is just having some time off so she need not feel afraid. Apart from ash dieback, no other cause for the destruction of forests is mentioned. This may leave the audience with the tacit understanding that ash dieback is the main reason trees are cut down. For older (if not all) children, therefore, it may be useful for those accompanying them to provide this extra context. Judging by the children’s reaction to Fraxi’s story alone, it is probably best to have a tissue ready when you do.