Emma Rice’s ‘Wuthering Heights’ – At Best Authentic, at Worst – a Farce ★★★

By Stevan Balac

Perhaps, after all, there are only so many ways to skin a cat. With a piece of English literature so iconic as Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, Emma Rice’s National Theatre production has certainly revived the classic gothic tale of forbidden love in an original way. The most striking thing about this particular adaptation – whilst it falls short of the current trend of setting classics in the modern day – is that it is in effect a modern musical. 

The audience is immediately greeted with the presence of a live band upstage left, as opposed to the orchestra pit, which does actually provide a chilling accompaniment to the eeriness of certain scenes, and a realness to the candle-light ballroom dancing scenes at the aristocratic Thrushcross Grange, whilst young Cathy and Heathcliff gaze wide-eyed through the windows from outside. Nonetheless, crossing the rubicon into performing actual songs – including at one point a bizarre punk rock solo of Catherine’s – does seem like a misstep. This really is the elephant in the room – and it’s difficult to detach from any other aspect of the performance because it continuously foils any moments of dramatic tension or emotional vulnerability that better resemble scenes in the book.

A great example is what appears in Chapter 5 of the novel when Cathy is taken ill after giving birth to a daughter, and Heathcliff – played with classical stoicism by Ash Hunter – sneaks into the Grange without Linton’s knowledge to visit her on what will soon become her deathbed. In the book, this is a wild, hallucinogenic moment which contains a flurry of emotional hysteria – a brief passionate embrace is quickly marred by the couple’s agonising realisation that Cathy has little time left with Heathcliff in the mortal world, and that they will not only have been deprived of each other in life, but the latter will be cursed to being left alone after her death. This was one scene that the production truly and, in my view, authentically captured – with Lucy Mcormick’s wild and slightly unhinged portrayal of Cathy being carried at head height around the stage by extras as Heathcliff remains standing, unable to reach her as she ascends ever further from the mortal world, and his company (Indeed, I would be a liar if I pretended I didn’t shed a tear at this scene – as I believe I did at its equivalent in the book). 

But even this, what would have been a magnificent way to end the first half at a moment of unresolving tragedy, was spoiled by another chorus featuring several cast members not present in the preceding scene. So too do they miss an opportunity with the famous ‘face at the window’ opening scene – which is supposed to set the tone for the gothic horror aspect of the story – but a slightly buffoon-like depiction of the co-narrator Lockwood, and the pace at which they rushed through the scene, felt like they wasted what could have been a true, Woman in Black style haunting jump scare for the audience. 

The play has moments of genuine humour – which I don’t think are out of place in a production of Wuthering Heights – but should be practised with restraint. Katy Owen’s portrayal of both Frances Earnshaw and Linton Heathcliff (stop me when it gets confusing) were great performances – and seemed to replace the tragedy of Linton as a sickly, abused child with a spoiled melodramatic weakling. Whilst these performances were indeed excellent, and exhibited a mastery of live physical comedy, I couldn’t help but think they again crossed a line into the farcical.

Rice’s latest production then, is not quite a modernist sacrilege to a classic – at its best it does retain the authenticity of the novel  – encapsulating that ravine between late 18th century romanticism and late Victorian gothic horror/mystery. Likewise, it reminds us that the spirit of the original story is timeless – with Hunter’s Heathcliff having a soft Carribean accent  bringing the allegory of outsiders and foreign-ness a modern twist (indeed, the racial aspect of Heathcliff is strongly hinted at in the 1847 original). But at its worst, it saps the intensity out of perfectly stand alone scenes and hazes over them with the superficiality of a musical – something which soon into the second half I was keen to retreat from, to the comfort of an overpriced glass of house white.

Tickets are still available to purchase for Wuthering Heights till the 18th March

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