Metro, Sydney Morning Herald, December 28, 2007
BENITO DI FONZO finds Mafia references in The Wind In The Willows.
Front at left, Callie Gray as Mole with Joe Sullivan as Ratty. At back is left, Warwick Allsopp as Weasel and Tamlyn Henderson as Toad.
Photo: Marco Del Grande
"It feels like one big picture book," says Callie Gray of the production of The Wind In The Willows, staged annually in the Royal Botanic Gardens. "We're really at one with nature."
Gray again will embody Mole, whose journey above ground into the world of the riverbank, chaperoned by nautical companion Ratty (played by Joe Sullivan), is at the heart of Kenneth Grahame's classic children's tale.
In the 100 years since its original publication, Grahame's novel has been adapted many times for stage and screen. It has introduced whole generations to the pastoral wonders of boating by the riverbank, where Ratty, Mole and other creatures such as the stern Badger (Colin Donnelly) and the mischievous Toad (Tamlyn Henderson) live.
This Australian adaptation by Glenn Elston introduces audiences to the magic of theatre as well as the gardens.
"I think kids naturally have a love of theatre, of dressing up, make-up and play-acting," Gray says. "It's wonderful that we can have it in such a wonderful position on Sydney Harbour and you can bring your mother, grandmother, sons, daughters - it's for everyone. For an actor it's absolute bliss: outdoors, a receptive audience, great material."
The performers mostly stick to the original story but the production allows for some improvisation, particularly when the children who are turned into rabbits become part of the show.
Later, parents allowing, these children are formed into teams and taken into the "Wild Wood". Ratty's team is termed the Rat Pack. It reminds me that, while many over the years have seen the story as analogous to the British class system, with the upper-class twit Toad, middle-class river bankers, the proletariat of rabbits and underclass of weasels and stoats, no one seems to have noticed the obvious references to Mafia mythology, namely the "rats" and "moles" "badgered" by an ancient and powerful patriarch.
I put this to Ratty and Mole.
Gray: "Badger could be the Godfather, couldn't he?"
Sullivan: "He'd kneecap you with his walking stick."
Gray: "I'm loving that. Maybe we should go with that?"
Sullivan: "Who would Toad be, the bumbling fool?"
I suggest the clumsy Fredo Corleone and decide to quit while I'm behind.
Toad Hall, positioned in a natural amphitheatre near Mrs Macquaries Chair, is the scene for a climactic imbroglio in Grahame's novel, where Mole, Ratty, Badger and Toad wield clubs and rifles against weasel and stoat squatters. However, this scene has been softened for the gardens.
"We use water bombs," Gray says. "We try to make it a bit of fun - Weasel [Warwick Allsopp] is scary enough."
Much of the story revolves around the foolish Toad, including his jailing for grand theft auto and escape as a washerwoman in a moment of classic pantomime drag. However, Gray feels Mole's discovery of a world beyond her tiny underground home and the unique personalities that populate it resounds most with audiences.
"There's an innocence that the kids really relate to," she says. "I almost represent them up there with these animals. They learn to be themselves - not to apologise for who you are - and enjoy that. Kids are the best to perform to: they're amazing, so generous and, if they don't like it, they'll tell you."
A few brats among the bunnies, then?
Sullivan: "Which Badger keeps in line. They'll yell out and throw things."
Gray: "Tug costumes."
Sullivan: "Pull your tail."
Gray: "Say, 'You're not really a badger.'"
Nonetheless, Gray admits Mole is her childhood dream role.
"I put the make-up on when I go out on Friday nights," she quips.
I thought I recognised her from that weird club near The Sopranos' Bada Bing.
"Yeah, it's called The Burrow."
Royal Botanic Gardens
Mrs Macquaries Rd, Sydney
5 January 2008 to 26 January 2008
$25 ($85 family of four)
1300 122 344
Tues - Sat, 11am & 6pm.