WIND IN THE WILLOWS
Take it to the bank
By Stuart Rolt
“We tend to focus on the classics – stories and titles that people are familiar with. But we try to tell them in a different way, or have a slightly fresher approach to them.” James Weisz is sharing his philosophy on how to fire up young minds using drama. Already it’s been a hectic morning. In the last ten minutes, I’ve had to stomp up the hill under the glare of a developing heatwave, confusedly try to open a door the wrong way and witnessed a lorry mangling a bollard only inches from the coffee shop we’re meeting in. Luckily, Weisz is gently-spoken and thoughtful – a calming influence on a too-busy Seven Dials.
We’re speaking ahead of his staging of Kenneth Grahame’s much loved [Wind In The Willows]. Heading to Brighton Open Air Theatre on Weds 5 – Sun 9 July, it’ll see a new twist on the universal classic. After a successful few years at the ill-fated 88 London Road, his production company are now producing shows in some of the most interesting venues in the city. The emphasis is still very much on creating theatre relevant to children and their families, though. “I guess it’s because I watched loads as a kid. I always loved it and was always inspired by it. It made me want to do it and get involved.” For many, this will be their first experience of theatre, so he and his company aim to make it as empowering and captivating as possible. So, [The Wind In Willows] is an apt work, with its heightened reality of talking animals heading out on adventures beside the river.
First published in 1908, and now adapted into a musical by Stephen Kingsbury and Ben Sleep, all the wit, wisdom and magic of this masterpiece has been given new life. We meet Mole, who has decided to explore the nearby river bank, accompanied by his friend Ratty and a thirst for discovery. Soon they run into a curmudgeonly Badger and an irrepressible Toad, where the adventures truly begin. Each of these characters reflect a stage in the human lifespan. Badger appears to be the oldest, and as such enjoys the most respect. Rat seems to be slightly younger; he’s blessed with experience but still capable of having fun. Before Mole lies all the world has to offer – there’s so much to see but also plenty to learn. The way Toad acts would mark him as the least mature – his self-centred antics are comparable to those of a spoiled child. “In this day and age, you really get a sense of what Kenneth Grahame was trying to say about greed, gluttony, selfishness, and how society wanted more and with a faster return. I only cottoned on recently as to why he’s a toad. He’s green and he’s jealous.” [The Wind in the Willows] also seeks to engender a few understandings. Like why a strong home life can be important – while it’s fun to venture out, it’s reassuring to know there’s a home to return to. It also sought to stress the concept of consequences – often rash or foolish actions from a character (invariably Toad) will bring around their downfall. But what it projects most ardently is the value of friendship. Even when one of them is being grumpy, foolish, or churlish, these four loveable characters stick together in the face of any adversity.
So with a little imagination, some music and plenty of props, this classic will come alive. It’s fitting that a story so scornful of the city life should be retold in Brighton’s greenest theatre. “When I knew we were going to be doing a show at BOAT it seemed fitting to find a title which would work well in the open air. I wouldn’t want to do a play there which was set in a living room.” BOAT’s exposed nature does mean productions need to be a little more inventive and audiences occasionally more open. The theatre does lend itself perfectly to a more easygoing style of show. “When the weather’s great it’s really magical and special. What we really love is how informal it can be. People bring in their picnics, booze, blankets and cushions. It’s really relaxed. People are still focussed on the performance, but it’s less stressful.”
Over the years, Weisz has built up a loyal audience – not least because of his large-scale pantomime. These can be the only theatre shows people will see during a year, and can be young people’s first introduction the world of theatre. He’s produced the only panto in Brighton since 2013, a tradition continuing with [Pinocchio] this Christmas at The Attenborough Centre. “It’s perfect for this day and age, with lying and post-truth. Again, it’s a story which I don’t think is visited very often, and it’s got plenty of circus – which I love doing.” He admits he strives to ensure stories are told realistically, but also told at a level that everyone in the family can enjoy. “My litmus test is my family. I have cousins that are eight and nine years old, and a grandfather that is 85. If I get them all into a show, and they all enjoy it, then I have done my job.”
[Wind In The Willows] comes to Brighton Open Air Theatre on Weds 5 – Sun 9 July.