The Wind in the Willows in the Gardens

The cast of The Wind In The Willows in the Royal Botanic Garden. Image: Ken Leanfore

It’s a unique, natural setting for a timeless children’s classic. Director, Marianne Bragge shares memories from 20 years of staging The Wind In The Willows in the Royal Botanic Garden. 

When producer, Glenn Elston invited Bragge to direct the very first performance of the show, she accepted and was immediately hooked. She has directed every performance since, even though she invariably swears at the end of each season that she’s had enough and will not return. 

“My epitaph is going to read ‘She just willowed away’,” Bragge laughs. 

She never loses her love for the show, but it is an incredible amount of hard work and stress. The production crew is small and has to do everything from constructing sets to washing costumes. 

“But it’s a very rewarding experience when we know we’ve got over 200 people sitting on that hillside overlooking the harbour and Toad Hall and they’re just clapping and cheering,” says Bragge, explaining the impetus that keeps her coming back. Despite the fact that it tells the same story in much the same way, the show feels a little different every year. 

Toad and friends outside Toad Hall, The Wind In The Willows in the Royal Botanic Garden. Image: supplied.

“Something very beautiful about this show – it’s ever changing. It’s still got its bones, like it always is the same, but there’s something about working outdoors as well as the contemporisation of the classic makes it fresh every time I do it.”

New actors bring something new, and of course, it’s never the same audience, although there are stalwarts who return season after season. Bragge has seen kids who came years ago come back again with their own kids. She and the cast have even got to know a lot of die-hard fans. 

Kenneth Grahame wrote The Wind In The Willows at the turn of the last century. It was rejected by several publishers before finally reaching book store shelves in 1908 and almost immediately flying off them. The story of  Mole, Rat, Toad, Badger and friends and their adventures along the banks of the River Thames has delighted children and adults ever since. It’s been adapted into films, animation, theatre, musicals, opera – virtually every form of entertainment. This show in the Royal Botanic Gardens is a hybrid of pantomime, street theatre, and commedia dell’arte. What it really is is pure, joyous entertainment. 

“That beautiful reaction that the children have when the [character] talks directly to them is really quite charming,” says Bragge.

And then there’s the organic magic of the surroundings.

“It really is one of the most spectacular gardens in the world.”

Audiences sit on the grass near a pond for one scene, and then move to another location and sit on a slope for another scene. All the while, they can look around and admire summer flowers in bloom, exotic and indigenous plants, impressive landscaping, and the stunning harbour and city landmarks in the background. 

Holding an outdoor event in a public garden does have its challenges: unpredictable Sydney weather; berry-loving parrots in trees; even the drunken lingerers of a buck’s party once, who commandeered the row boat. 

The Wind In The Willows in the Royal Botanic Garden. Video: YouTube/theaustralianshakespearecompany

Not having facilities close can be a hassle but adds to the fun and spectacle, too. For instance, the dressing room is located at Domain Lodge which is across from The Domain and a fair walk from the performance site. Thankfully, Yamaha supplied the company with a golf buggy to help transport the cast. Bragge laughs about driving the buggy along Art Gallery Road:

“So you’ve got the Head Chief Rabbit and Weasel hanging out with a guitar. They often sing and it’s really quite a sight.”

The Wind In The Willows really is a fabulous event for everyone in the family, regardless of age. There’s just the right mix of content for children and adults so no one every needs to feel uncomfortable or left out. 

“There’s something wholesome and intelligent about it. It never gets lurid,” assures Bragge. 

Bring a picnic, dress up if you like, expect to have fun. 

The Wind In The Willows is on in the Royal Botanic Garden, Sydney, (Harbour side of the Main Pond) from 5 to 23 January 2022. 

For more information and book tickets, visit: shakespeareaustralia.com.au

Rita Bratovich is the arts and entertainment editor for the Sydney Sentinel.