In a world of weasels, is adventure worth the risk?
By the riverbank in the heart of the Royal Botanic Gardens, the Australian Shakespeare Company reprise the much-loved pantomime once again on Melbourne soil with bounce-off-the-wall energy and boisterous voices, capturing the child inside us and setting them loose in the evergreen expanse. The sun beams down through the clouds; the picnic blankets make a patchwork on the grass; the open space becomes a stage and the lawn an unsheltered makeshift auditorium. ASC’s Wind in the Willows basks in the glory of a perfect setting, with a backdrop of lush flora and a beautiful waterbed painting the nature of the piece. Coming to life without hesitation or hindrance, Wind in the Willows invites us into the colourful world of our animal friends and along for the thrilling journey.
First published as a children’s novel by Kenneth Grahame in 1908, the piece was initially notable for its themes of mysticism, adventure, morality and camaraderie; over a century later, this story and its themes have passed on to become one of the most beloved pantomimes of our time. Loosely following the original plot, ASC’s rendition follows the Head Chief Rabbit (Kaya Byrne) as he transforms the audience into his trusty troupe of rabbit adventurers. Meeting the sly and sneaky Weasel (Paul Morris) whose tricks are still tucked up his sleeve, the adventurous little Mole (Chloe Bruer-Jones) and her craving for companions, the chirpy Ratty (Saxon Grey) and his reassuring presence, the stern and stolid Badger with his head held high, flimsy and floppy Otter (Benjamin Colley) and his runaway child Portley, and of course the uninhibited, unabashed and ultimately endangering Mr. Toad (Ryan Hawke), our characters slowly but surely make their way to the grand Toad Hall where festivities are to be had… that is, until someone gets his way and overthrows the kingdom, leaving our trusty team to strategise and save the day.
Our team of four – Producer Glenn Elston, Director Otis Elston, Stage Manager Janel Gibson and Assistant Stage Manager Amber Bock – manage to glue this whole piece together. With the location of the gardens playing a huge part in access of vehicles and direction, this team conquers the earth itself (literally) and allows for all transitions to be as smooth and as appropriate for the moment as possible. Otis Elston especially takes the reigns in his interpretation of the piece, allowing each character’s individuality to flourish in their mannerisms, interactions and physicalities. Although a trope in itself, quasi-stereotyping characters we know from our history, our media and our day-to-day makes the story all the more appealing, alive and enticing, putting together a group of contrasting misfits in order to weed out the problem and rescue the fallen castle. Full of surprises and colloquialisms to split the sides of both children and adults, Wind in the Willows constantly revs the audience into fits of laughter and ear-to-ear grins, proving that children’s theatre is everyone’s theatre. It is noteworthy that this production managed to keep a cold, wet and wind-swept audience absolutely mesmerised, once again solidifying the rapport and quality of the Australian Shakespeare Company and the productions they put on, as well as the phenomenal and inimitable casting choices.
Our show starts with only the grassy lawn and a park bench as our set. With such an open and minimalist beginning, there is no chance to intimidate our young audience with intricacies and distractions. Smartly chosen, this performance technically has two acts, bringing the audience on a physical relocation during the “interval” as we travel from our riverside sanctuary to the brilliantly designed Toad Hall: an enormous and elaborate castle with turrets, parapets and a central spire in which, through the window, hangs a lopsided portrait of Mr. Toad himself. With a tale all about the journey and the big, wide world with secret tunnels and wild woods, Mr. Toad takes our animal friends through the methods in his madness and of his transportation as his interests grow: a large blue rowboat, paddling on from the opposite bank; a tall carriage pulled not by horses, but by our own Ratty; and a small red car, zooming past at wild speeds and wreaking havoc on the neighbourhood.
With each animal being so unique from the next in their mannerisms and behaviours, the costume, hair and makeup designs did a fine job in highlighting these individual features accordingly. Taking into account each character’s lifestyle and mindset, an array of personalities are defined extrinsically onstage: Otter and Portley in their surf lifesaving swimwear and flippers, Weasel in his shaggy and ragged gambler’s suit and draped in a trench coat, Badger like an army captain in his colonel’s trench and black bowler hat, and so on. Highlighting these qualities through their image heightens them in turn, helping land each line and joke without seeming unnatural, disconnected or misplaced.
With a whole original score to detail the journey, our characters sing and chant about the things they know and love from their world, each number with its own underlying lesson to guide the characters, the audience, and the story. With catchy hooks composed and various genres explored, our performers donned many different instruments and became a live band, playing along and enticing the audience. The convention of singing known pop songs and likewise made a surprise appearance in the second act during a short interlude while the kids were off exploring with the other animals, leaving Head Chief Rabbit and Weasel to charm the parents left behind with rewritten reprises of older hits, including Shannon Noll’s ‘What About Me’, Eminem’s ‘Lose Yourself’ and Daft Punk’s ‘Get Lucky’.
In its usual timeless fashion, Wind in the Willows makes light of the struggles in a way in which everyone can fall in love with the story and its characters all over again. Sometimes the wild woods may be dangerous, but a little courage can turn an learning opportunity into an plethora of unforgettable experiences. We all have to face the woods someday; however, that does not mean we’ll ever be too old to call out “He’s behind you!”