Writer: Emily Bronte
Adaptor: Andrew Sheridan
Director: Bryony Shanahan
Shortly after its first publication in 1847, the poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rosetti said of Emily Bronte’s masterpiece: “The action is laid in hell – only it seems places and people have English names there.” Welcome to Penistone Crags, twinned with Hades, courtesy of the Royal Exchange Theatre.
The novel is a Russian doll of a narrative, with multiple flashbacks and notoriously unreliable narrators designed to distort the reader’s perspective. On the stage, the story can be acted out, without the need for a specific storyteller to filter and interpret the action. But to keep faith with the original work, there should remain elements which are inexplicable, unimaginable, other-worldly. Bryony Shanahan and Andrew Sheridan pull this off superbly.
It is noticeable that Sheridan is not merely credited with adapting the novel, but delivering “a new version”. This is entirely fair. For while the original characters and storyline are respected, Sheridan’s script distills and elevates the emotional core of the book, shedding some of the peripheral detail: essential in reducing a lengthy Victorian tome into a manageable evening’s theatre. The complex spiritual and emotional co-dependency between Cathy and Heathcliff is the black hole at the centre of the play’s universe. It sucks in everything else around it, subverting what might otherwise be “normal”.
Heathcliff is first encountered as a feral guttersnipe, thrust into the Earnshaw household as an unwelcome addition to the family. His wildness meets its counterpart in the untamed nature of young Cathy, a pagan spirit attuned to the heartbeat of the rough moorland setting of Wuthering Heights. “The hills are alive” as Julie Andrews memorably put it. These two are soulmates, “blood brothers” in a play much possessed by blood, but society will only tolerate a modicum of anarchy. Convention dictates that they should never be masters of their own destiny. Neither of them is willing to be subservient, and their rebelliousness marks them down as doomed. Heathcliff explains this to the servant Nelly: “She is just as trapped as you. Her cage is gilded shut”.
The Royal Exchange space is extremely versatile, despite the constraints of theatre-in-the round. When the play opens it seems as if the contents of a suburban garden centre have been randomly scattered around the performance area. Polystyrene rocks, raised platforms topped with artificial grass, and clusters of moorland flora litter the stage. There is barely room for the few kitchen chairs and the odd tin bath set incongruously amid the greenery. Only the dominating skeleton of a bare tree stands with dignity. The set improves miraculously in the second half as the random plants are dispensed with and only the basic structure of the set remains. It has been cleared for action and the foliage no longer distracts, even if the stage still looks like a scale model of a crazy golf course with too many holes.
The principal characters of the novel, Heathcliff and Cathy, are so well ingrained in national culture as to be a shorthand for wild, abandoned passion. Very helpful in comedy skits; less useful here. This production is blessed with Alex Austin as Heathcliff and Rakhee Sharma as Cathy, who take their respective characters through considerable development during the course of the play. Alex’s transformation from brutish low-life to menacing avenger is perhaps the more sensational metamorphosis, but Rakhee’s retention of Cathy’s essential earthiness, beneath the veneer of conformity, is at the heart of the play. There were no weaknesses elsewhere in the cast, but Samantha Power deserves special mention for bringing Nelly so fully alive. Yorkshire accents predominate, but the language has been largely updated, particularly the swearing.
The mood of such a piece of theatre is often set by the lighting and other effects. There are some striking uses of lights suspended at various heights above the stage to create a particular atmosphere (much like the candle holders hoisted and lowered in Jacobean theatres or at the Globe’s Sam Wannamaker). Mist, rain, and the call of wild birds evoke the harsh moorland.
The stroke of genius which takes this production onto a different plane is the use of live music from Sophie Galpin and Becky Wilkie. This starts as an occasional undercurrent to the drama, a folksy evocation to accompany Heathcliff and Cathy on their high fells trysts. By the time the protagonists are pledging their souls in an unconditional death-defying pact, the thrashing guitar and searing vocals are ramping up to a heart-stopping crescendo. This play calls for emotional overload, and the musicians generate it.
The production may have weaknesses, but it also has surpassing strengths, not least its power to engage at an emotional level, and bring a hackneyed story to fresh life in 2020.
Runs until 7 March 2020.