*Spoiler alert: if you don’t know the fate of Brontë’s characters and you don’t want to know in advance, you may want to abandon ship now…*
Wednesday 10th November 2021 at York Theatre Royal.
In Emma Rice’s adaptation of Emily Brontë’s gorgeous Wuthering Heights, we lose a housekeeper and gain a chorus: The Moor itself guides us through the troubled lives of its inhabitants, interfering when necessary – sometimes heeded, sometimes forceful, and sometimes comically muted by wayward characters with impulses they simply cannot resist.
Lucy McCormick and Ash Hunter offer a simultaneously modern and classic Cathy and Heathcliff; modern in their mannerisms and the odd contemporary ad-lib, and classic in their faithful portrayal of the intensity of their characters. Hunter perfectly teeters between inspiring sympathy after enduring unforgivable cruelty and inspiring disgust at his wilful continuation of the cycle of that cruelty. McCormick’s wide-eyed, perpetually unstable Cathy haunts the stage before, during and after her death, giving a suitably unnerving portrayal of the battle between tempestuousness and ill-fated submission to circumstances.
In true Emma Rice directorial style, this production is alive with energy of all kinds. It’s not just that the troubled characters carry with them a permanent sense of agitation in their physicality, nor is it simply the wild energy of the stormy Moor creating a sense of unstoppable forces. It’s the frenetic action as the plot unfolds and the straining of the full spectrum of emotion. There is faithfulness to the source material here, but Rice is fearless when it comes to inserting surprising contemporary points of reference for emotional outpourings alongside more traditional tropes of mental anguish and troubled souls. She’s also sure-footed in her generous platform for physical comedy, providing us respite while playing to the strengths of her cast.
And it’s a great ensemble cast, too. The comic treasure-trove that is Katy Owen is a gift as Isabella and Little Linton, but she’s also given scope to pluck at our heartstrings and our anger too. Her partner in high kicks, Sam Archer, carries the same flailing energy in his early moments as the very misguided Edgar Linton before sobering up later. As The Moor, Nandi Bhebhe and Kandaka Moore sing beautiful, haunting harmonies of warning and lamentation. They’re periodically joined by others as an extension of the Moor itself and Etta Murfitt’s earth-pounding choreography, along with Simon Baker’s video designs and some evocative puppetry (John Leader), there are some impressive visuals along the way.
Particularly notable moments include the devastating fall of the initially ridiculous Isabella Linton and the echoes of said fall in the story of young Catherine Linton – played beautifully and endearingly by Mirabelle Gremaud. Also impressive is Tama Phethean’s 160 pivot of from a grotesque Hindley Earnshaw to Hareton, an ogre-ish replica of his father, before ultimately coming to an optimistic halt at a reformed and gentler variation (in spite of his gene pool). Everyone we meet is a force of nature, and that ability to offer up relentlessness in a way which grips and moves to both laughter and sadness is hugely impressive.
Between them, Emma Rice and a wonderful cast reawaken the gripping, emotional spirit of Wuthering Heights in all its glorious despair, parting on a note of optimism to somewhat restore our equilibrium before we leave. Don’t go expecting a neat package of Brontë’s nineteenth century literary tour de force. Go with an open mind and be prepared to see a brave and contemporary reinvention of a literary great.
Wise Children’s Wuthering Heights plays York Theatre Royal until 20th November 2021 and you can find your tickets here.