Theatre in Wales

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Watchable and vigorously

The Wind in the Willows

Aberystwyth Arts centre , Aberystwyth Arts centre , December-14-02
I found the dramatisation of Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, directed by Mark Blumfield, that has just concluded its run at the Aberystwyth Arts centre was generally well done, watchable, and vigorously acted by an enthused-looking ensemble. However, as Grahame’s book was written at least outwardly for children, and the Arts Centre’s production seems to have been written and marketed as a play for families with young children, I’ll begin this review with the reactions of the target demographic. At the performance I saw on the evening of 15 December, approximately one third of the spectators looked younger than ten, and about three quarters of the adults were accompanied by children. During most of the first half of the first act, more than half of the children I could see in the rows in front of me were playing with chocolate wrappers, poking at their siblings, and doing yoga in their chairs. A few who were sitting next to parents or slightly older siblings were whispering questions about what was going on up there on the stage, while one girl kept her eye contact fixed, for long periods of time, on a boy a few rows in front of her. After a while, he turned his gaze from the stage and stared back at her. I didn’t notice who won the staring match, but it looked intense.

Why was this happening? In this adaptation, written by Alan Bennett (The Madness of King George III, Beyond the Fringe) a great deal of the first act was devoted to exposition relayed through dialogue. Particularly when this dialogue was spoken by two or three characters standing still and in profile, not acknowledging the audience, the actors lost the children’s attention. The first entrance of Mr. Toad (played by Jim Finnis), for example, was prefixed by a long dialogue scene in which Water Rat (Lindsay Blumfield) tells Mole (Mark Williamson) all about the eccentric amphibian. Things got better later, when the drama became interactive. All the fidgeting stopped when Toad asked the audience if he should “borrow” a motorcar that isn’t his.

“YES!”
“But that would be stealing?”
“NO!”
“Just a LITTLE drive?”
“YES!”

Bennett conscientiously informs the audience in advance of car crashes and other traumatic events—and assures them in advance that all the characters will survive unharmed.

The trouble with these early dialogue scenes shows the adapter shifting between writing for children and for adults. Some moments appeared geared for one group or the other, while Grahame’s book, like his contemporary J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, capably engrosses both. For example, Bennett’s climactic dramatization of the trial scene holds everyone’s attention—children and adults, but near its end, the actors suddenly freeze, allowing a narrator (Sara Hedges) to point out that Grahame chose to have Badger raise his hat as Toad is led off to prison because “Oscar Wilde’s friend Robert Ross” did the same thing at the conclusion of Wilde’s trial. Then the tableau melts back into motion and the show goes on. The interjection is interesting. In the car-obsessed Toad’s experience, grand theft auto might well be a crime of passion, but unless you really believe that all private property is theft then it’s an act from which Toad SHOULD be discouraged, and is therefore fundamentally different from the Victorian/Edwardian “felony” of homosexuality, which (hopefully?) most people don’t still believe should be condemned in law. Bennett’s revelation of this bizarre compounding of the two tore a thought-provoking abyss between Grahame’s context and ours, but seemed like a footnote, and dramaturgical notes usually work better in the program so they can be accessed at a convenient time, without disrupting the narrative. (Also, in the conspicuously coy use of the term “friend” for Wilde’s former lover and later literary executor, Bennett treats the adults in the audience as if they were children.)

Bennett is absolutely spot-on in his interpretation of Grahame’s Willows as a tale about the imposition and defiance of boundaries. Toad is punished for pursuing his desire for sleek-bodied, well-built, dangerous motorcars, a privilege quite nonsensically monopolized by humans; the animals are forbidden to venture into, or even discuss, “the Wild Woods” or “the Wide World” beyond; Mole comes out of his hole and happily finds friends, society, and (in the book) the god Pan, protector of the woodland’s animals. Some of the limits the characters impose upon each other are justifiable, others are irrational, paranoid, and cruel, and on one level the whole story is Grahame’s tortured evaluation of his society’s condemnation of his own ‘undesirable’ desires for other men. His book’s celebrated cuteness or quaintness is punctuated with snatches of uncanny horror, mostly in the Wild Woods, and of the ethereal, such as Mole’s vision of Pan. This adaptation downplays that sense of the ethereal, entirely eliminating the Pan scene, which I thought was a shame. However, one very effective scene, watched attentively by almost all of the kids, appropriated Mole’s visit to the Wild Woods, but converted it into a far more concrete gantlet of terror. In that scene, Mole trembles curled up on the floor, indispensable glasses knocked off, circled and trapped by the gang of Weasels and Stoats. “Go back to where you belong, we don’t like moles” the bullies chant. “Little black animals… moles are dirty… we don’t like moles, they belong in holes.” That Mole and the Weasels don’t wear the fur headdresses or obviously illusionistic face paint that some of the other ‘animals’ do consolidates this scene’s disturbing familiarity and its efficacy.

Williamson’s performance as the shy, vaguely adolescent Mole is the most, well, human and engrossing—as Grahame seems to have intended in the book, but Norma Izon was also wonderful as the “depressed” and perpetually exploited cart horse Albert. Unlike Grahame’s nameless, speechless horse, Albert is as anthropomorphic as any of the protagonists and makes a good case against Toad for cheating, mistreating, and enslaving workers who help him and for generally being a crassly classist, thoughtless narcissist. Izon deftly replicates a horse’s walk and reveals her character’s humanity. Other great character performances include Catrin Huws as the slightly unstable wife of the owner of the car Toad steals, Claire Jones as the adventuresome, garrulous Barge Woman, and Rachel Forde and Nigel Petts as the Captain of the Weasels and her second-in-command. The company should also be proud of Ratty’s rowboat, impressively constructed from a free-standing bathtub.

Through most of the second act and during the play’s rousing musical finale, the younger spectators were cheering and mostly paying attention. Probably one of the most important objectives a play for children must fulfill is (sorry to use this image) to get children hooked on theatre, or at least to avoid convincing them that it’s boring to watch and best avoided in the future (especially if there’s something good on T.V), and inadequate as a mirror of their own concerns. Did this play make theatre interesting to the children who saw it? By the end, yes. Did they find the exciting bits worth waiting for? I hope so. That most of them walked out smiling and chattering, and almost none were carried out asleep is certainly a good sign.

Reviewed by: Rebecca Nesvet

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