This Christmas, the Rose Theatre Kingston will be getting into the festive spirit with a production of The Wind in the Willows. Based on the much loved story by Kenneth Grahame, this adaptation by Ciaran McConville will bring new life to this classic. With rehearsals under way, Ciaran took some time out to speak to me about staging this story, his literary influences, and the connection between the Rose and this story.
I’m sure a lot of people will remember reading The Wind in the Willows from childhood; what made you pick this story?
There’s a familiarity to it and people enjoy that at Christmas. There are so many great characters in this story, some iconic some less prominent. These all offer great opportunities for young people to play around with, because the characterisation is so rich. There are a whole host of familiar characters, but the book itself is actually quite surprising. Talking to people, they don’t remember certain things, so there are a couple of surprises in store…
The story which Kenneth Grahame has written here is timeless. It’s this guy escaping certain elements of life and reconnecting with other elements, with the Thames. I commute along the river and the Rose Theatre Kingston is set against it, so it really feels part of the community here. That’s the great thing: it’s a story which involves and engages the whole community, including our Rose Youth Theatre.
Can you talk a bit about this initiative for young people?
The Rose Youth Theatre started in 2008 and is a big part of the Rose Theatre. This year, we had 287 auditions for our company which is for 11 to 18 year olds, and it was a very rigorous process. What we offer them is intensive training in all aspects of stagecraft. We started work on The Wind in the Willows back in August, so that when the cast arrives in the rehearsal room they are all ready to work. We began rehearsals last week and there’s no difference there between them and the rest of the cast. And you have to remember: these kids are up at 7am, going to school and studying 13 subjects too!
They really drive the show this year. It’s not like they come on for a tap dance and then disappear. We follow them through the story, they narrate it to us; they bring such a sense of community and energy to the story. They really are the heart of this production. We did a table read back in September with a couple of the main cast. We started to read through and the RYT began singing the first song, and Jamie Baughan who is playing Toad teared up. They are such an inspiring and professional group of young people.
You’ve adapted quite a few books before at the Rose Theatre Kingston before. How do you achieve the transition from page to stage?
It really was quite hard to begin with. Last year, we staged A Christmas Carol and Dickens makes it easy to adapt with his structure. I started work on The Wind in the Willows last Christmas and it was a struggle. The book has dark elements: it isn’t female friendly and it broaches certain issues about class, ones which we struggle with now. But then it has these really farcical parts which conflict, like Mr Toad. So I sat and pondered and struggled some more and drank a lot of coffee! And then I chatted to our Designer and Composer, and we just figured it out.
We’ve decided to set ours in 1930s, and doing this gives us so many opportunities design wise. It also changes the background in a really exciting way; issues such as standing up for what you believe in and taking responsibility for your actions really come to the forefront. It makes the community theme shine forth even more. Working with this brilliant team, we’ve been able to make this transition from page to stage easier, and bringing it to life in the rehearsal room has been great. It’s an adventure, both for the characters and us.
You have some cross gender castings in this production, such as Emma Pallant as Ratty. Was this a deliberate choice?
Absolutely. As I said, the book is misogynistic in places and strong female characters are under-represented. I suppose in that way it’s a book of its time. This production addresses a young crowd who may be coming to the theatre for the first time. Also, we have a cast that is populated by young women, so we absolutely wanted to balance the gender representation on-stage. I’m delighted to have Emma Pallant (Ratty) and Joy Brook (Otter) in our cast. They’re both such talented actresses, and their characters don’t pull their punches!
And how will these animals be portrayed – will it be full blown costumes or nods to the creatures, such as Toad’s famous driving goggles?
For me, the book is about people. It’s very sad, but Grahame retreated from the urban world, he was forced to retire actually, to this rural idyll away from people. So in The Wind in the Willows, he made the animals like people.
There are lots of nods to animal traits in these characters, but really we are interested in how human they are. Mr Toad is like a small child and Mole is like Harry Potter, thrust into this new world! We do certainly have certain images in our head of how they look, thanks to famous illustrations by E.H. Shepard. But actually the story in the book makes no sense, if you think about Mr Toad’s size and shape. He is able to drive a car and he is running fingers through hair! There’s an inconsistency in Grahame’s writing here.
There have been quite a few adaptations of The Wind in the Willows on stage this year? What makes yours stand out?
When you adapt a classic novel, you are acutely aware of what comes before you. With Alan Bennett’s famous production at the National and A.A. Milne’s brilliant Toad of Toad Hall from the 1930’s, there’s a history there. The way to deal with this is to shake it off a bit, otherwise it dogs you.
I think one of the things which makes ours stand out is where it is. We are in this beautiful space at the Rose Theatre Kingston, which is built on using the blueprint of a Elizabethan theatre. It’s a special, special place for a Christmas show and it’s right on the banks of the Thames, so it has that connection to the story.
We are also aware of our influences. Sitting down early on with our designer, we spoke about our favourite books as children. So went back to books we loved growing up, and tried to incorporate elements of what we loved into how we told this story. We are also respectful of what Grahame wrote and we hold on to that tightly. He wrote with this incredibly visual language, so you can absolutely imagine his world. We try to emulate this story telling: I know that ours will make you laugh and cry in just 2 hours.
And growing up, what were some of your favourite books?
It’s sad, I used to read all time as a kid, I don’t do it as much as I’d like to now. I was an only child in a small village, and I absolutely loved to read. Roald Dahl was a big favourite, particularly The Fantastic Mr Fox. This idea of supporting the underdog, it resonates and is incorporated into this production. In the rehearsal room, we talk endlessly about our favourite books: Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter get mentioned. And then I’ll mention a book from my childhood and look round the room with the RYT and see a sea of blank faces! I’m showing my age!
What I really loved though was a great story and I still do today. And what I love about the Rose is that it puts the story first and foremost. It draws you in and takes you back to how you felt as a kid.
Finally, which of the main characters do you think you would be?
Oh, that is really hard! I find it difficult to not get up and act, though I am restrained from doing so! I am bad at it too! So I think I’m definitely a bit like Mr Toad. But then again, I feel more like Moley. I’m really shy, I like to go home and listen to Radio 4! And then I am passionate about otters in real life, so I’m drawn to Otter. Really, I want to be all of them! But I suppose people would gravitate towards Ratty, they are the hero after all!
The Wind in the Willows is playing from 6th December 2016 to 3rd January 2017 at the Rose Theatre Kingston. For more information and to book tickets, visit the Rose Theatre Kingston website.