Wuthering Heights – National Theatre, London

Reviewer: Scott Matthewman

Writer: Emma Rice, based on the novel by Emily Brontë
Director: Emma Rice

You don’t have to read the programme notes of Wise Children’s adaptation of Emily Brontë’s only novel Wuthering Heights to realise that writer/director Emma Rice loves the book. Her affection and devotion for the piece shines from every moment on stage. Whether it works as well for those who have not yet fallen for Brontë’s work as she has is another matter entirely.

Rice sticks to the original novel’s narrative line, which starts near the end of the tale’s chronology. As the new tenant Lockwood (Sam Archer) makes a call to his landlord, Ash Hunter’s Heathcliff, the extreme weather of the windswept Yorkshire countryside is represented by Archer flapping his overcoat in a comical fashion that harks more to Patrick Barlow’s comedic retelling of The 39 Steps than to the grimy, gothic romanticism of the book.

But while a streak of such comedy is present throughout, it never sits easily with the rest of the tragedy-infused story. Also not effective as it could be is Rice’s choice to present the Moor itself as a character, played by Nandi Bhebhe (although other members of the ensemble also contribute to the role). It is often said that the moor is a character in its own right in Wuthering Heights, so it is an exciting prospect to see that taken further on stage: however, in practice this leads Bhebhe to act more as a narrator, adopting the role taken by the servant Nelly Dean in the novel.

The heart of the story is, of course, the tempestuous relationship between Catherine Earnshaw and her foster brother, Heathcliff. Lucy McCormick and Ash Hunter initially spark well as the children face up to their passionate feelings for one another as they grow up. With Tama Phethean’s Hindley abusing Heathcliff and reducing him to live as the lowest of servants, Hunter shows a sense of internal struggle, the gentleman his adoptive father wanted him to be at odds with the serf he is forced to become.

As machinations drive the central characters apart, Rice’s skills are at their strongest; music, dance, the occasional bit of slapstick, all contribute to the tale of two soulmates driven apart but always destined to be destructively reunited.

The climax of that part of the story happens at the end of Act I, which at one and three-quarter hours is already the length of a full play. Act II jumps forward, as the novel does, to focus on the generation following; Catherine’s daughter Cathy (a beguiling Witney White) and Heathcliff’s own, sickly son Linton (Katy Owen, who takes up the reins as the comedic foil).

But while the interval break is positioned at a convenient time jump, there is so little event of consequence in the second half that the whole piece drags, rather slowly, to its conclusion. By necessity McCormick’s role is lessened, which guts the second half of the show’s brightest star. Hunter’s Heathcliff is onstage much more, but fidelity to the story means that he is but a hollow shell of his former self, existing on a single level, further contributing to the play’s imbalance.

Brontë’s novel survives, nay thrives, on such changes of pace and structure. The stage production, alas, does not. That is a shame, for there are some moments (especially a thrilling, punk-like solo number from McCormick, delivered with full backing dancers, wind machine, the works) which are up there with Rice’s best theatrical extravagances.

But because such moments are not applied equally throughout the work, and because the novel’s chronology is adhered to so strongly, one leaves the Lyttelton theatre nearly three hours later feeling like one has watched a double feature, with one very good full-length play followed by another, lesser production.

Rice clearly loves Wuthering Heights. But it will take a reading of the novel, and not a watching of the play, to work out why.

Continues until 19 March 2022

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Moments of brilliance in overlong adaptation

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