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‘Wuthering Heights’ review

  • Theatre, Drama
  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
Wuthering Heights, National Theatre, 2022
Photograph: Courtesy Steve TannerWuthering Heights
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Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

Emma Rice’s furiously atmospheric take on Emily Brontë’s all-time classic novel

There’s something almost self-parodic about the idea of former Globe and Kneehigh boss Emma Rice adapting ‘Wuthering Heights’. Her unmistakable brand of darkly irreverent whimsy has been brought to bear on so many classic stories of doomed romance that piling on Emily Brontë’s immortal yarn of infernal love on the Yorkshire Moors just feels a bit extra at this stage.

But even though her take on ‘Wuthering Heights’ includes every single stylistic quirk and hallmark you expect it to – a full house of Emma Rice bingo – after about 30 seconds you remember that Rice is simply a very, very good storyteller. Her toolbox of fourth-wall-breaking japery, song, dance and puppetry serves her brilliantly well when adapting the right source material, and she is particularly excellent at detangling knotty plots.

Here we have a chorus of actors playing The Moor, which is intrinsically funny, especially when Nandi Bhebhe’s Leader of the Moor announces that this is what she is to Sam Archer’s Mr Lockwood, bewildered tenant of the tyrannical Heathcliff.

But they also fill the stage with frenzied action that mirrors the windy, wily landscape. And quite often they just explain to us what’s happening. At one point we’re given a comprehensive rundown of the story’s confusing myriad of minor characters, many of whom have ‘Linton’ in their name somewhere, and it’s really bloody handy.

But any irreverence is effortlessly countered by the production’s evocation of the novel’s elemental wildness. Atmospherically, it’s a triumph, with Ian Ross’s thrilling live score built on roiling percussion and screeching strings paired with Simon Baker’s projections of tumultuous skies. It surges and crackles with energy: at moments of peak emotion, the music and the story howl like twin furies.

And if the secondary characters are treated with a fair degree of levity – in particular there are two brilliantly absurdist turns from Katy Owen – the central ones are played deadly serious. Performance artist Lucy McCormick is inspired casting as doomed heroine Catherine, defiant of social norms but eventually crushed by them. There’s none of the provocative humour of her solo act, but she retains her uncomfortable intensity and she really knows how to move and sing, burning the stage up like a prime Courtney Love in one frenzied musical number just before death. And that’s not the end of her: she remains to stalk the stage like a smudge-eyed ghost, weighting the atmosphere with her presence.

Ash Hunter’s Heathcliff is Byronic and brooding. But he’s also played by a mixed-race actor sporting a Caribbean accent. Debate over Heathcliff’s intended ethnicity has raged over the years, and Andrea Arnold’s acclaimed film adaptation of ten years back portrayed him as Black. But Hunter’s take more explicitly ties his hatred of polite society to not only racism, but also colonialism. I definitely I don’t think it’s a stretch to see this Heathcliff as a sort of deliberately intended male counterpart to the damaged, mistreated first Mrs Rochester from another Brontë novel, ‘Jane Eyre’.

Together, this Catherine and Heathcliff feel like true outsiders, bound by their rage at a society that wants them to be subservient to the oft absurd or trivial people who surround them. Their love is not exactly what you’d call conventionally romantic, but the feeling is very much there that are the fuel for each other’s fires.

Of course, both of those fires go out in the end, and this ‘Wuthering Heights’ finishes on a pointedly weird cheery note, in dazzling sunshine, as the world simply continues without Catherine and Heathcliff. It feels wrong: and that’s probably the point: like the book, this show’s heart lies in the storm.

Andrzej Lukowski
Written by
Andrzej Lukowski

Details

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Price:
£20-£89. Runs 2hr 30min
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