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Bristol Old Vic
HOW do you approach a classic where most of the audience already have strong preconceptions based on Emily Bronte’s 1847 novel, film adaptations or a chart topping song? Emma Rice and her company, Wise Children, have managed it with zest, flair and distinctive originality.
The three-hour epic is a fresh and invigorating retelling of the tale of neighbouring Yorkshire households’ bitter, multi-generational relationships, employing many of Rice’s signature techniques: live music, Greek-style chorus, physical theatre and a versatile approach to set and props.
At the heart of this production are two intense performances from Lucy McCormick as Catherine and Ash Hunter as Heathcliff. The ill-fated couple, driven to pursue their love even beyond death, are played without sentimentality. Their cruel passions and detestations, unrestricted by any social conventions, border on the psychologically unstable.
But Rice does not allow the intensity of this all-consuming relationship to overwhelm the production and the rest of the cast embellish these pivotal roles with lighter, often comic depictions from Sam Archer’s ebullient, scout-like Lockwood braving the moors to introduce the characters, to Katy Owen’s laughably wimpish and self-centred Little Linton.
These representations do more than offer light relief, they also highlight the depth and complexity of the central characters and define the social and moral parameters that Cathy and Heathcliff transgress with brutally destructive consequences.
Replacing Nelly Dean as the narrator by a choral representation of the wild Yorkshire moors and Simon Baker’s vast, permanently changing skyscape projections are brilliant devices to symbolise the unrestrained, instinctive forces that all but destroy both families.
Emma Rice’s adaptation of such a well-thumbed text and her ability to use it to reflect current social issues in such an engaging style is magical. So many elements in this show work in perfect harmony from John Leader’s puppets reinforcing the children’s vulnerability and Ian Ross’s hauntingly evocative songs to Etta Murfitt’s diversely expressive choreography.
Wise Children are once again proving themselves an outstanding force in British theatre and this show is not just for fans of Emily Bronte but anyone who wants to experience the power and potential of live theatre.
Runs until November 6 then on tour, box-office: bristololdvic.org.uk
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