FREESTYLE BRISTOL

Theatre Review: Wuthering Heights

 The long awaited third play under the Wise Children theatre company is the prime example of the company’s excellence – but how successful is the transition to stage for this revered gothic literary work?

Words: Emma Witham

Credit: Steve Tanner

‘Whatever souls are made of, his and mine are the same.’ The long awaited third play under the Wise Children theatre company did not disappoint. It is the prime example of the company’s excellence – but how successful is the transition between novel and play regarding one of the most revered gothic literary works? And possibly more importantly, how does it fit into the company’s overall high degree of excellence? Based upon Emily Brontë’s novel of the same title, Wuthering Heights follows the tumultuous and interwoven lives of two families living across the Yorkshire moors. The narrative particularly focuses in on the somewhat charged relationship between Heathcliff and Cathy – and how this Sid-and-Nancy-esque dynamic fires its shrapnel at those in proximity.

In approaching Wuthering Heights, one immediate question stands out more than the other – how do you tackle The Heathcliff? The characterisation of one of the most notorious Byronic heroes is a bold undertaking. Yet it is one faced head-on by actor Ash Hunter – and met well. It is simply testament to Rice’s genius and Ash Hunter’s skilled characterisation that the audience feels sympathy for the ‘fiendish wolfish man’ in the former half of the show. You’re given the sense of a villain’s origin story, a layer to his actions that develops the narrative, wrapping it in a richness. It makes his following moral downfall all the more bitter. The script’s omittance of Joseph – the wizened and disgruntled Yorkshire servant of Wuthering Heights – seems a shame. There seems to be a hole within the dynamic. Yet perhaps this omission is for the greater good of the tale. It proves how selective Rice has been in her decisions surrounding the adaptation, emphasising the true craftsmanship in the structure. The physical embodiment of the moors as a character themselves was furthermore an unusual take: the kind director Emma Rice seems to love best. However, it arguably takes away a lot of the pantheist qualities that dominate the novel in its essence. It’s definitely a debatable element to this performance in particular, however Rice seems to have done what is most fitting for a lengthy narrative.

Credit: Steve Tanner

Each performer brings the performance an individual upon their respective characters, but no-one does it quite like Katy Owen and her squealing Linton Heathcliff. You cannot help but to feel goosebumps as she exudes the simpering and spiteful nature so associated with his person. The lisp and repeated phrases she employs against his selfish nature demonstrates the direct understanding of character adaptation that makes Owen one of the most praise-worthy actors under the company’s name. Now, one of the most famous aspects of the narrative has to be its confusing web of names. From Lintons, Heathcliffs, Earnshaws, Catherines to names beginning with the letter H. In response, the company chose to feature within it a direct recognition of the confusing nature of the titles within the show. It was both deeply refreshing and comical, reminded us that we as the audience are just as an important part of the theatre as the players themselves. The use of blackboards to mark characters was in keeping with the archaic theme but also functionally kept the audience reeled in. A notoriously difficult narrative to follow became easy and traceable – the mark of cleverly inventive theatre.

Credit: Steve Tanner

Our expectations from previous Wise Children productions were also well fed. As ever, there was an abundance of song and music, and appearances from puppetry. There is the intense evoking of Rice’s popular story telling nature, although perhaps the plot of Wuthering Heights limits how far the company can stretch their skills. Throughout, there felt to be an unignorable feeling that the intense unlikability of the characters has stripped the audience of the charming characterisations Wise Children have shown themselves capable. The tale is not exactly light. A gothic staple perhaps shouldn’t be. It does not, however, make it the easiest theatre to watch. To counteract this, there was a wise (ignore the pun) imbedding of comic relief to offset the sharp intensity of the plot. We were treated to Lockwood’s comically upright character in stark combat with Heathcliff’s active frostiness. We were humoured with Doctor Kenneth’s campy interruptions. But we were completely spoiled with a breaking of the fourth wall. Climbing amongst the audience is always a somewhat unpredictable manoeuvre, you cannot guarantee how people may react – but McCormick (Cathy) executed it particularly well, with her directly playful interactions. You were given no choice but to laugh as she toyed with the audience members. 

The dance between comedy and tragedy is symbiotically maintained by the cast and the script. Wuthering Heights’ deep blurring of boundaries has made it a difficult novel to adapt. Brontë’s somewhat erratic frame narrative has never made it easy, but there is triumph in Wise Children’s efforts. Although it may not have checked every ‘perfect adaptation’ box, overall, the cast and crew have created a piece of theatre that dominates the 2021 theatre scene. The performance has, rather undoubtedly, become another staple feather in Wise Children’s grand cap.