Theatre Review: Wuthering Heights, Royal Exchange, Manchester
There are more adaptations of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights than you can shake a stick at. Telly, cinema, theatre and even song, you name it, it’s been covered. But there’s something unusually fresh about the Royal Exchange’s latest version which offers the audience much more than running about on the moors in a white nightgown.
OK, so we open with the moors (and yes, a nightgown makes an appearance) but not as we’ve seen them before. This is a dark, modern twist on the classic tale about the love between Cathy and Heathcliff who can’t be together because of Heathcliff’s poor social status (well, that and their violent temperament and complete disregard for anyone else). Set on the Yorkshire moors, Wuthering Heights is a story of passion, envy and revenge.
This is the first production directed by the Royal Exchange’s new artistic director, Bryony Shanahan, and it’s a bold move. The script, written by Bruntwood Prize-winning writer Andy Sheridan, is peppered with swear words (characters frequently shout “piss off” and “f**king”) and newness, but the story remains true to the original.
The action begins with Earnshaw bringing Heathcliff home to Wuthering Heights and the first half focuses on the growing love between Cathy and Heathcliff – and the isolation of Hindley – as they run wild through the moors. Cécile Trémolières’ set is incredible, full of life and nature during the first half, before becoming desolate and sparse in the second.
It’s worth mentioning that I’ve just finished reading a new biography about Anne Brontë which explores the younger sister’s lack of patience for abusive men and violent passion, and this has made me view Emily’s characters in a different light. On the stage, and in hindsight, the story loses its romantic appeal and becomes more about toxic relationships, family dynamics and rural isolation. Heathcliff’s obsessive love is suffocating and poisonous. He self-harms, revealing crosses carved into his forearms to mark the days Cathy has been with Edgar Linton (Dean Fagan), and his resentment is oppressive. I’d always imagined Heathcliff as the great wronged but, despite feeling pity for his plight, his revenge feels more complicated. Alex Austin plays Heathcliff as I’ve never seen him before. His expressions are magnetic and his stare is icy cold. While I prefer his approach to Heathcliff in the first half of the play – wounded, bitter, lost – I wasn’t the biggest fan of the Heathcliff we encounter in the second half, all strut and too Peaky Blinders-esque for my liking.
Cathy is wild, manipulative and prone to violent outbursts and unkind words. Yet she gains some of my sympathy, something I never thought I’d feel for her character. While she is not faultless, toying with the affections of both Heathcliff and Linton, she seems more human. Her descent into madness, performed brilliantly by Rakhee Sharma, is utterly terrifying on the stage. We watch her scream and thrash as Heathcliff runs around her, refusing to speak.
This is a great adaptation which explores the violence and madness of obsessive love – both familial and romantic (more is made of the Hindley/Heathcliff/Earnshaw triangle). But it’s not all doom and gloom. Rhiannon Clements is fantastic as Isabella and leaves the audience in stitches with her comic asides and enthusiasm at finally finding a man. Fagan is also funny as the “I know I’m a bit posh” Linton.
But will Brontë purists be dismayed? Perhaps. Nevertheless, this adaptation has the power to reach a new audience and is well worth a gander.
Images by Helen Murray
Wuthering Heights is at the Royal Exchange in Manchester until March 7, 2020. For more information, or to book tickets, click here.
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