‘The Wind in the Willows’ was halcyon.
When we think of theatre, we often envision crowds gathered watching a lighted stage and red, velvet curtains. However, the great versatility of theatre is that it can be staged anywhere. The Australian Shakespeare Company (ASC) knows this particularly well. For well over 30 years, the ASC has been performing shows each summer in the Royal Botanic Gardens of Australia’s two largest cities, Sydney and Melbourne.
Each Botanic Gardens season of the ASC abounds with shows for young and old. While the company is synonymous with the works of William Shakespeare, ASC’s family theatre is equally cherished. One production that has become a beloved staple is ‘The Wind in the Willows’, which is celebrating its 35th year. With a theatre stage as captivating as Melbourne’s Royal Botanic Gardens, it is easy to see why families flock to see the show.
Based on the classic 1908 children’s novel by British author Kenneth Grahame, ‘The Wind in the Willows’ regales the adventures of several anthropomorphic woodland animals in the English countryside. Much like the works of other writers of the period (namely A.A. Milne, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien), Grahame’s characters have captured the hearts of children for several generations. Characters such as the effervescent Ratty (Andrew Bongiorno) kind-hearted Mole (Christina Wells), wise old Mr Badger (Charles Mayer), and ever exuberant Mr Toad (Ryan Hawke) have become landmarks of 20th century children’s literature. ‘The Wind in the Willows’ is known more for the characters’ escapades than an overarching narrative, making it a story very much of its time and timeless.
Grahame’s story has garnered a multitude of adaptations during the past 113 years. From the 1929 stage play ‘Toad of Toad Hall’ (adapted by the above-mentioned Milne) to a 1996 live action film by Terry Jones (of Monty Python fame), to the 2016 West End musical, ‘The Wind in the Willows’ has experienced resurgent popularity throughout the century. The story, or more specifically, the narrative of Mr Toad and his motorcar, has even been immortalised at Disneyland through the Fantasyland attraction ‘Mr Toad’s Wild Ride’. No matter the medium, ‘The Wind in the Willows’ continues to prove itself to be a firm fixture within the landscape of children’s entertainment.
Families’ devotion to ‘The Wind in the Willows’ is evident in the latest production by the ASC. Even after 35 years, the company displays a skilled knack for modernising the classic story – for the benefit of children and parents alike. Director, Ryan Hawke incorporates elements of pantomime, vaudeville, and revue into his production to create an immersive and engaging 90 minutes. Under the gentle guidance of the Head Chief Rabbit (Callum O’Malley), families are encouraged to participate in the narrative as they are dubbed honorary rabbits. The interaction between the audience and the action is the real star of ASC’s production. In encouraging such immersion, Hawke provides his audience with the chance to rekindle their love of youthful make-believe – a necessity for live theatre.
This integration also allows for audiences to appreciate the Botanic Gardens setting. Staged in the heart of the gardens, ‘The Wind in the Willows’ uses its environment to its narrative advantage. Its two major set pieces, the Central Lake and Lawn, provide a stellar backdrop for audiences to become absorbed in the pastoral narrative. Families are invited to move between the two locations during the would-be intermission, allowing children a chance to stretch and explore the garden.
The exploration continued as the climax of the show neared. As expected with a story with several narrative threads, children were invited to separate into teams to help bring resolution to key plot points (the disappearance of Portley the Otter and to help out Mr Toad). Reaffirming its family theatre aesthetic, parents were treated to the musical stylings of Head Chief Rabbit, O’Malley and Weasel, Alex Cooper (a particular standout) in their children’s absence. In creatively changing lyrics of popular songs to more meta ones about parenting and school holiday activities, the ASC crew managed to bring a smile to its adult patrons.
If there is one key message from ASC, it is that theatre can and should be enjoyed by all members of the family. Director Hawke successfully manages to breathe new life into ‘The Wind in the Willows’ to make it both poignantly classic and humorously modern. The show’s charming legacy is as resonant as ever.
‘The Wind in the Willows’ is a production to partake in as much as to witness, regardless of age. If you are looking for family-friendly theatre these school holidays, bundle up your little bunnies and hop on over to Melbourne’s Botanic Gardens. Toad Hall will be waiting for you.
‘The Winds in The Willows’ performs until Sunday, 30 January 2022 at Melbourne’s Royal Botanic Gardens. For more information, or to purchase tickets, visit the Australian Shakespeare Company’s website.