On Theatre

Heartless Heights

Brontë’s lines anchor the frenetic action in Emma Rice’s over-the-top production

This article is taken from the March 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

The prospect of seeing a book which brings back teenage struggles with the Brontësaurus canon turned into a larky riff filled me with some trepidation en route to the National Theatre’s production of Wuthering Heights.

When it comes to the classics, the director, Emma Rice, is a dedicated shredder of reverence. She brings puppetry, extra-narration, whimsical additions and a bit more of whatever she might fancy to stories from A Midsummer Night’s Dream to Brief Encounter.

Her irreverent doctrine of amping-up theatricality with music, racy lighting and supplements of disco music is not to everyone’s taste — it meant her stint as artistic director at The Globe was short-lived. She left after a quarrel over how much deconstruction that reliable tourist attraction of Bard-worship could tolerate.

Not Brontës vision, but 2022 likes its race parables simple

In truth, Rice’s effervescence and risk-taking sit better outside the confines of a single theatre. Her work is the dramatic equivalent of glam rock belted out at full volume. Wuthering Heights is an audacious offering, a co-production of her company, Wise Children, with the Bristol Old Vic and York Theatre Royal. It is so OTT that it makes Kate Bush leotard-clad caterwauling about the wily, windy moors look like a subdued under-performance.

Emily Brontë’s novel of 1847 does not make for easy adaptation. Her complex framework of windows into memories which situate the original action in the years just before the abolition of the slave trade at the beginning of the nineteenth century explains the experience of young dark-skinned Heathcliff at the Liverpool docks.

Ash Hunter plays him as African-American. This is probably not what Brontë envisaged and the stage in 2022 likes its race parables to be simple. He is given a thoroughly racist welcome on the moors and extracts a dreadful revenge.

For all of its compelling magic, Wuthering Heights is not what anyone would call a short-winded tale (my teenage daughter is not the only reader to have thought it peaks with the death of Cathy Earnshaw and the subsequent saga is about as compelling as Better Call Saul is in relation to Breaking Bad).

Rice takes daring shortcuts to address excess material

Rice takes some daring but inspired shortcuts to address the excess of material, such as compacting the narrator, Nellie Dean, into the character of the “Moor” — a mix of Greek chorus, and Baal-like goddess (elementally sung and danced by Nandi Bhebhe). The intertwined family trees of the earthy Earnshaws and over-bred Lintons are dealt with by the cast holding up blackboards to remind us which generation we’re in.

As the plot darkens into its tangle of ill-assorted love, sickness and death, the boards become avatars for tombstones.

We get some wonderful props on Vicki Mortimer’s set — the larks and curlews on the moors are books fluttering on the end of poles whirled by dancers. Hounds unleashed on poor Heathcliff with grim regularity are canine skulls on sticks — and yet the terror and bubbling hatreds towards an incomer feel chillingly real.

I wish I could say the same about the romance and sexuality, but Cathy (Lucy McCormick) was 40 watt on this score. Portraying Cathy as fully ADHD is defensible in terms of the text, but also a bit tiresome to watch over the long haul when it boils down to a lot of shrieking and running about.

Given this lacuna, it is Brontë’s lines which anchor the otherwise frenetic action (“He’s more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same”) is a sentiment so simple and commanding that it explains the ferocity of doomed love and also why it compels.

Emerging from lockdown, audiences are happy to go along with some craziness

The feel of this production owes a lot to the mood of the moment. Emerging from the past two years of lockdowns and restrictions, audiences are happy to go along with some directorial craziness. It feels like an improvisation, mixing the innovative with the undisciplined.

Katy Owen’s turn as Isabella Linton is vulnerable and idiotic in equal measure. She returns for a comic tour-de-force as the ailing Linton Heathcliff, a gender-blind casting which she has the elasticity and physical brio to pull off. But at some point, you wonder if the artifice has devoured the point of these scenes.

Brontë is perfectly at home with challenging gender expectations in Heathcliff’s horror at fathering a weak, effeminate child. But this portrayal is more comedic than painful and Owen’s antics undermine the sadness and sense of alienation — physical comedy lashed onto a work of depth is often better as the sauce, not the main ingredient.

Rice, I am sure, disagrees with me. She wants to present us with the Wuthering Heights not of a teenager in first recognitions of desire and the pull of extreme emotions, but as the reflection of an adult, angry about our heartless response to child refugees, the lost Heathcliffs of our day who inspired her to revisit the tale.

Alas, there is too much going on (not least in the cartwheeling cast) to figure this out or think very much about the parallels from what we see in an accomplished but dizzying blend of drama and romp. We’re left with the windy moors, the gravestones and something missing in the mist, which we might call heart.

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