Wise Children’s Wuthering Heights is theatrical and epic to the extreme, but is tonally worlds away from Brontë’s classic novel
Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights is notoriously hard to adapt. With many characters who are all related in complicated ways, all of whom seem to share similar-sounding or identical names, as well as dual narrators and time periods, there always have to be some creative liberties taken when transforming this work into stage or screen.
Brontë’s Gothic novel featured characters ruled by emotion and is notable for its depiction of a love that spanned even death. For two whose souls were near-identical but were forced apart by a multitude of earthly contrivances, only to be united in death. Wuthering Heights is Romantic with a capital R. That is to say that there is nothing within Heathcliff and Cathy’s relationship that should be striven towards. It is toxic, all-consuming, co-dependent and maddening.
These are the elements that Emma Rice brings to the forefront: the malice, violence and cruelty that lies within the story. The phrase “Be careful what you seed” that repeats throughout the play demonstrates the danger of acting with cruelty.
Wuthering Heights begins with Mr Lockwood (Sam Archer), a tenant at Thrushcross Grange, visiting his landlord Heathcliff (Ash Hunter) at Wuthering Heights in the height of a storm. He receives somewhat of a frosty welcome but, while staying for the night, reads the diary of Catherine Earnshaw (Lucy McCormick) and encounters her ghostly form trying to come in through the window. On his way home, he encounters The Leader of The Moor (Nandi Bhebhe) who tells him the story of how the inhabitants of Wuthering Heights came to be this way.
Therein, the entire Moor comes to life itself to tell Lockwood Brontë’s story, working together with brilliant theatricality to regale the many obstacles that stood between Catherine Earnshaw.
Rice turns Brontë’s classic into a Greek tragedy, creating characters of exaggeration. Dispensing with Nelly in favour of a Greek chorus in the personified Moors is an inspired move, considering the massive role that the Yorkshire moors play in the novel. Rice also cleverly halts the action at particular moments to help bring the audience up to speed with the current events in a humorous, accessible way.
However, as creatively enticing as the Moor is, and as hypnotic and engaging as their musical interludes are, they never fully realise their potential. Firstly there is the matter of narrative confusion as they physically interact with the characters, essentially just filling the parts of the story that Nelly would typically fill, but their entrancing, harmonised talk-singing is often too intelligible for it to be worth including, as melodically diverting as it is.
The music (Ian Ross), along with the choreography (Etta Murfitt) really do create a sense of wildness that the novel itself is known for, as nature almost overruns the inhabitants of Wuthering Heights, particularly Cathy. However, this does almost undercut some of its own gravitas. With its pounding, surging underscoring, this can sometimes detract from the genuine heft of human emotion and some of the characters can feel less relatable within this heightened world.
Humour runs throughout, despite the focus upon the almost inevitable tragedy that is unfurling. Edgar (also Sam Archer) and Isabella Linton (Katy Owen) are used to brilliant comic effect, bounding around the stage in ridiculous costumes and Owen steals the show in Act 2 as Isabella’s son Little Linton. However diverting this humour may be, it does somewhat detract from the dour story that is occurring everywhere else and almost undercuts the message of cruelty.
Perhaps the most significant change here is the casting of Hunter as Heathcliff. The interpretation of Heathcliff’s treatment as being related to both racism and colonialism (which apparently ties in nicely with Liverpool’s role in the Slave Trade at the time of Brontë’s writing) enhances Heathcliff’s quest for revenge. It also serves as a commentary on refugees by Rice. This treatment that Heathcliff suffers at the hands of Hindley (Tama Phethean) and Edgar ultimately create a cruel adult, purely motivated to cause harm to others, regardless of the cost.
The show, as the novel does, ends on a note of hopefulness, demonstrating that it is never too late to choose to learn from the mistakes of what has come before, instead of repeating it. This places Hareton Earnshaw (Tama Phethean) in particular as a symbol of this hope. The second act also features some brilliant acting from Witney White, who lends Catherine Linton brilliant depth and pathos.
Ultimately, Rice’s story on how cruelty begets cruelty is incredibly powerful and prescient. There are a multitude of brilliant ideas sandwiched within, though not all of these completely work in situ. Additionally, the show would benefit from far more ruthless cutting, with a first act of 100 minutes that easily could be streamlined for maximum impact, and a Moor who never truly meet their full symbolic potential.
Wuthering Heights is at the National Theatre to 19 March