Writer: Emily Brontë
Adaptor: Emma Rice
Director: Emma Rice
Although Emma Rice’s adaptation of Wuthering Heights could be said to be gonzo rather than gothic it is surprisingly respectful of the source material. The play follows closely the plot of the book with Lockwood (Sam Archer) getting a frosty welcome when he pays a visit to the brooding Heathcliff (Liam Tamne) from whom he is renting a property. Compelled by stormy weather to stay overnight in Wuthering Heights, Lockwood is horrified by a vision of a phantom desperately begging to be allowed entrance. The Leader of the Moor (Nandi Bhebhe) tells Lockwood (and the audience) of the doomed love affair between Heathcliff and the deceased Cathy (Lucy McCormick) whose spirit haunts the moors.
Director Emma Rice takes a ‘kitchen sink’ approach and stuffs a large number of ideas, most of which work like a dream, into the stylish adaptation. Vicki Mortimer’s stark set reveals the bare bones of the theatre; stacks of equipment are clearly visible in the wings; the few props have a makeshift appearance and the cast sit around the stage waiting to step forward. The rear of the stage is dominated by a massive screen upon which bleak moorland images are projected. There is a magic reality aspect to the setting – typical of the affection in which the source material is held flocks of books, rather than birds, fly around the stage.
There is a pagan tone to the production. With the exception of a full-blown rock chick power anthem from Lucy McCormick the score by Ian Ross (and performed live by Sid Goldsmith, Nadine Lee and Renell Shaw) is very much rural folk music. Nandi Bhebhe’s narrator figure serves also as a Green Man – a personification of the natural environment.
The bleak themes of the novel – that love far from being ecstasy is a painful experience and life is unfair – are reflected in the play yet there is a gleeful undertone of dark even silly humour. The difficulty of following a story in which so many characters have similar names is openly acknowledged. The opening song in act two bluntly recommends anyone seeking a romantic story should try Poldark’s Cornwall instead. The dance steps at a festive celebration are so extreme as to resemble the Ministry of Silly Walks. There is a gloriously eccentric performance from Katy Owen who enjoys sliding down the bannister as it ‘’tickles her tuppence”.
The psychological motivations behind the behaviour of the principal characters are explored in full. Lucy McCormick’s anguished Cathy is bipolar with moods swinging from a need to run wild to suddenly enjoying shallow material pleasures. Cathy’s daughter avoids her mother’s self-destructive behaviour as her obsessive need to wander is mitigated by a degree of compassion for others. The lyrics of one of the songs point out it was inevitable anyone as abused as Heathcliff would behave in an unsympathetic manner and Sam Archer certainly emphasises the character’s implacable ability to hold a grudge and seek retribution for perceived wrongs. But although their behaviour may be explained the play does not excuse the excesses of Cathy and Heathcliff who act more like demons than wild children selfishly tormenting anyone who does not confirm to their worldview.
A degree of indulgence creeps in during the second act; the gag about struggling to understand the plot is repeated and the absence of the tormented Cathy has an impact. Wuthering Heights remains, however, an imaginative and refreshingly funny version of a classic novel.
Runs until 7 May 2022