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Theatre Review ‘A story not of romance but of brutality, cruelty and revenge’

JAN WOOLF recommends a play which is a marvel of ensemble playing, where actors and on-stage musicians are in high-energy harmony

Wuthering Heights
National Theatre

 

CHARLOTTE BRONTE said of her sister Emily’s book “Wuthering Heights is rustic all through. It is moorish, wild, and knotty as a root of heath.” And so are the family dynamics.

This enduring classic has been adapted for movies, TV series, put to song by Kate Bush and satire by Monty Python, with soulmates Cathy and Heathcliff communicating with semaphore flags across the moor.  

It’s been a set book on the English National Curriculum and the subject of many essays, my favourite by Andrea Dworkin claiming that the whole thing represents “bad emotional health.” And so it does.  

Director Emma Rice gets this entirely. After visiting a refugee camp, she writes in the programme: “Wasn’t Heathcliff an unaccompanied child refugee taken in by Mr Earnshaw?... So, no longer intoxicated by impossible passions… I saw a story not of romance but of brutality, cruelty and revenge.”

From this more insightful perspective, Rice and her company Wise Children’s Wuthering Heights is a marvel of ensemble playing, where actors, on-stage musicians, Ian Ross’s music and Vicki Mortimer’s set  (an installation of moving parts) are in high-energy harmony.  

Rice replaces Bronte’s servant narrator, Nelly, with a personified moor, a troupe acting, dancing and singing like a Greek chorus as they unspool the tragedies of the Earnshaws and the Lintons.

The Leader of The Moor (a terrific Nandi Bhebhe) in a hat of ferns, sticks and feathers, calls on the audience to “Concentrate…no-one said this was going to be easy.” And so the complications of family ties are dealt with at the beginning, as a performed family tree.
“Real” trees are stacks of chairs, dogs are snapping jawbones on scythes, and birds flapping pages of books held aloft on poles - all against gently moving film of grey Yorkshire clouded sky.
 
The Moor (mother nature) befriends and tries to advise the human characters, offering emotional support – as when Cathy’s brother Hindley hits the bottle after his wife Frances dies in childbirth. They are almost singing a twelve-step programme – one sip and into the abyss. Off into the chaos...

Death abounds, whether through childbirth, alcoholism or plain despair, each death accompanied by a doctor, played with bleak humour by Craig Johnson.  Each is named and chalked up on a blackboard and paraded across the stage.
 
Sam Archer as Mr Lockwood, the character opening and closing the story, and as Edgar Linton gives us terrific character acting. He’s very funny.

Lucy McCormick is sensationally powerful as Cathy — a wide-eyed tousle-haired girl lost in a world of love and eroticism beyond her understanding, and in the second half, the haunting presence of a blonde Goth.  

The usual adjective for Heathcliff is brooding, but Ash Hunter, superb in the role, loves, hates, is clever and cruel, revengeful and despairing in equal measure. He also sings mightily – as does Cathy when she grabs a microphone and wails like a banshee, wind machine throwing her hair back. For these are the altered states of intense emotion.

Children are represented as puppets, which works well. We flinch no less when young Hindley strikes the puppet child Heathcliff across the face in a jealous rage.

A few scenes dragged, and less of the comic talent of Katy Owen as Isabella Linton and little Linton would have improved the comedy.

Tama Phethean as Hindley Earnshaw, and later as his son, a rough and needy Hareton trying to learn his letters, is excellent, picking up an earlier theme of the importance of education. Cathy had rebuked Heathcliff for his illiteracy, giving Linton as much of an edge as his nice house.

Hareton becomes the redemptive hero, as the destroyed man is restored to inner life by Cathy and Linton’s daughter, Cathie (Witney White), whose caring father Edgar has made her less fucked up than the others.

Hareton and Cathie manage to find real love, rather than revenge marriage or pathological obsession. They even have a row, snapping at each other in the “boundaried safety of an unconditional relationship” – as a councillor might say. This ending is uplifting and brings the audience back to an emotional reality.  

Special mentions too for — Movement Designer Etta Murfitt.   This is fine physical theatre that neither hides its theatricality nor lets it get in the way.  

Runs until March 19 2022. Box office www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/whats-on and Tel 020 3989 5455. For touring dates, until June 4 2022, visit stagechat.co.uk

 

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