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Theatre review: Wuthering Heights

28 April 22 words: Beverley Makin

A mesmerising and inventive restaging of the classic tale.

Photo by Steve Tanner

I’m a long-time lover of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights – the intense and flawed characters walking such a spectacular and dramatic landscape – but this was a last-minute show so I wasn't well up on this production.  It certainly wasn’t the familiar period clad tale you might expect. This gothic classic from the 1800s collided with director Emma Rice (who grew up in Nottingham) to become something very different.

As the curtain went up you see the stage was sparse and spacious.  A large parquet floor with three musicians at the back, limited and abstract props what were moved on and off by the cast as needed and seats along each side where the cast sat in waiting between their scenes.  Periodically lights were lowered from above and looming over the entire stage is a huge screen with rain, darky heavy clouds and crows flickering on an off to set the scene.

Not sticking strictly to the novel, Rice has skipped some characters and changed others. The spotlight being very much on Heathcliff whose origins are hinted at in the book, but Rice focuses on those possibilities and how they influence his treatment and behaviour.

Widowed Mr Earnshaw stumbles upon this poor lost boy on a trip to Liverpool, and takes in this dark, curly haired lad to be the new brother of his two children Hindley and Catherine in their Yorkshire home Wuthering Heights. Heathcliff’s ethnicity is hinted at in the novel but here he is constantly reminded of his ‘foreignness’ (his appearance, his accent and lack of English language skills) as he is stared at, bullied, belittled and discriminated against by all, implying he washed up in Liverpool as a victim of the roaring slave trade of the time.

It's not an entirely happy existence for this wild and lost little boy but he finds a kindred spirit in the equally wild Catherine Earnshaw, his benefactors’ daughter.  Love grows between them but when Mr Earnshaw, his protector, dies Heathcliff’s world changes and the fuse is lit for a brutal and cruel chain of events.

Photo by Steve Tanner

Heathcliff, fuelled by rage and a desire to avenge the wrongs done to him leaves Wuthering Heights to seek his fortune and his love Catherine moves on to secure her own comfort and security by marrying a well-to-do neighbour.  When Heathcliff returns three years later the owner of Wuthering Heights it is clear Catherine is still violently in love with him.  The people around them – those they love or despise – are manipulated and pulled into their drama with none able to escape while these two torrid, cruel and selfish lovers exist.  Over a span of 30 years the death toll around Heathcliff and Catherine is high with a chalkboard naming the deceased paraded across the stage at each tragic death.

For a novel of around 300 pages this production was long, and I did start to shuffle in my seat towards the end of the 100-minute first half.  However, I was mesmerised by the inventive restaging.  It was full of elements I have seen in productions before, but not altogether. A live band on stage, puppetry, interactions with the audience, singing (from folk to a full-on Kate Bush style rock interlude), dance and plenty of comedy.  Yes, there was comedy!  I’m still not sure how I feel about that in such a dark and violent tale but there was physical, almost slap-stick comedy and some wonderful dialogue.

Photo by Steve Tanner

Katy Owen who played both Isabella Linton and Little Linton is an amazing comic force, I couldn’t take my eyes off her whenever she stepped in the stage.  Agile and acrobatic and with priceless lines like ‘Sometimes I like to slide down the banister because it tickles my tuppence”.  The other stand out performance was from The Moor played by Nandi Bhebhe.  In Rice’s production The Moor is a character who interacts and guides.  Along with the rest of the cast who are all part of the moor at one time or another they act as a kind of Greek Chorus providing narration and comment and plenty of warnings such as ‘Be careful what you seed.’  An apt warning considering that such small acts and words have such dire consequences in this tale.

As mentioned there is music and song in this production, and plenty of it. So, it may not surprise you to know that Heathcliff is played by Liam Tamne of ‘The Voice’ fame. He provides a fine physical and musical performance but is a little too sulky for me.  Catherine, who has varied musical numbers, is played by Lucy McCormick (aka Lucy Muck).  Her non-stop, high-energy performance is no surprise if you look at her musical and experimental theatre credentials, she played an especially manic Catherine. However, despite two strong performances there was no sense of a deep love or passionate torment, just selfishness, grudges and noise. Exhausting to watch at times, I found myself longing for some of the serenity of the novel and it's deserted moorland.

If you love Wuthering Heights for the Bronte language, bonnets and bleak moorland this may not be the production for you. If you are a fan because of the stormy characters, gothic tragedy and like your drama lively then you have come to the right show.

Wuthering Heights plays at Nottingham's Theatre Royal from Tuesday 26 to Saturday 30 April 2022.

trch.co.uk/whats-on

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