Between Brexit and Trump, I think we can all agree that 2016 has been a crazy year to say the least. Cairn McConville, director of the Rose Theatre’s Christmas show, takes up this theme with the comment: “To the untrained eye it might appear that a story about a Mole going on an adventure has no place in such a world. I beg to differ.”
If anything, this staging proves that The Wind In The Willows feels more fitting than ever. Kenneth Grahame wrote the children’s novel as a response to the trauma of a gunpoint assault in his own life. This theme of confusion is mirrored in the turbulent and uncertain world of Moley, the voice of truth in this pursuit of adventure.
A loud and visual clap of thunder starts the show as it then means to go on. A major part of the production is Aideen Malone’s use of lighting design to signal the switching between the seasons. It illuminates Timothy Bird’s imaginative set design as we flit between calmness of Moley befriending Ratty and the trauma of being at the mercy of Weasel and his gang of tyrants. The realistic scenery immediately draws the audience into the woodland surroundings. Everything screams forestry, with most of the stage design resembling a jungle – save for the slight let down of the two-dimensional trees on either side of the stage.
Many of us will have read Grahame’s beloved story as a child, and Moley’s wholesome nature and almost angelic behaviour, as portrayed by Gary Mitchinson, instantly takes you back to childhood idealism. Moley is similar in character to an awkward, introverted public school boy who has the one aim of “looking for an adventure”. This quest for excitement plays on the naive curiosity only a child can possess.
The sweet disposition of Ratty is likewise warmly portrayed by Emma Pallant. Ratty’s motto is to live and let live on the river, as he enthuses about the benefits of life and comments that, “the wonderful thing about being free is you can choose what you hear. I choose to hear there’s nothing wrong with this wonderful world.”
In contrast, Jamie Baughan’s Toad is physically similar to Dr Seuss’s Grinch, whilst in his behaviour he could be a doppelganger for Donald Trump. He is an extremely selfish character, only thinking of the thrill of life and avoiding all responsibilities until he needs assistance.
It is with the villainous Chief Weasel (Oliver Smith), however, that Peter Todd’s costume designs really come into their own. Smith and his followers are dresses in Nazi-esque outfits and they create anarchy in a similar manner to The Lion King’s Scar set among the hyenas. It’s a risky sartorial reference for a family production, but it works well and makes a powerful tool with which to separate the good from bad in the eyes of the audience.
The delicate way McConville touches upon political issues is genius. He delicately builds it in through little comments like, “Your type don’t value anything”. There is much here that mirrors the class and racial stereotypes present in the world today. Even when the mockery of justice headed by the Chief Weasel is taking place, McConville doesn’t miss an opportunity for a contemporary parallel – with a weasel claiming to identify as a rabbit. Matched by the subtle reference to anti-patriotism, McConville’s methods of delivering adult themes to a family audience of all ages is ultimately the selling point of the production.
Throughout the play we are, of course, rooting for Moley to enjoy an adventure. Yet by the end the Chief Weasel’s thirst for power has reached such levels that the comedic moment of his eventual demise becomes the focal point. It ends of a note of hope that true justice can exist even in dire situations.
The Wind in the Willows is on at The Rose Theatre until 3rd January 2017. Click here for more details.