Andrew Sheridan, after Emily Brontë
Royal Exchange Theatre Company
Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester
7 February – 7 March 2020: 2hrs 30min
Adapting Wuthering Heights for stage or film has always been a challenge. It’s not the wind-blown Yorkshire moors we all immediately think of as its setting that give the problems – the majority of the original novel’s main events take place indoors, after all – it’s the extended time-frame and a storyline that makes the tragic love story of the main two protagonists repeat itself in a second generation. One of them is even again called Cathy, for goodness’ sake.
Andrew Sheridan’s new dramatisation goes a very long way towards faithfulness to the book. The second Cathy is acted by a girl and carefully named ‘Catherine’ at all points, to avoid confusion (whereas her mother, even as a child, is acted by an adult). So the end of the story, albeit in truncated form, is there in some measure – though the element of redemption in the second generation’s love is but a hint.
The main thing we want to see, though, is the extraordinarily wild and dangerous relationship of the first Cathy with her adoptive brother, Heathcliff. Now here’s a thing – Emily Brontë says he’s dark and like a gypsy: in Bryony Shanahan’s production, he (Alex Austin) is pale and speaks with a southern English accent throughout, in contrast to the northern tones of almost everyone else. It certainly marks him out as different, in an enclosed and introverted world.
Cathy (Rakhee Sharma) is a Yorkshire lass all right. All the dialogue is of today (only the costumes taking us back to the early 19th century), and she sums up her early view of Heathcliff as "you’re bloody hard work, you, aren’t you?" Too right. Later on, it’s more about being "half-wild, hardy and free" – there’s some great writing here, with the flavour of Emily’s own poems, which are part of the adaptation.
These performances are winners, but there are strong ones too from David Crellin as Mr Earnshaw, Gurjeet Singh as Hindley (a difficult assignment, as he has to be thoroughly nasty and then self-implode), Samantha Power as Nelly, indeed from all the seven-strong cast (and cutting the adult actors down to seven was quite an achievement).
Atmosphere is everything in any presentation of Wuthering Heights, and this one relies a lot on music to help create it. Composer/sound designer Alexandra Faye Braithwaite has created some truly haunting writing, with the duetting voices of singer-performers Sophie Galpin and Becky Wilkie, but I did have a problem with the long instrumentals in the second half of the play, where little seemed to happen except the actors emoting to them. Melodrama may be due for a rebirth on the British stage, but it seemed a little as if dramatic invention had worn thin at these points, with the sense of a concert intruding.
Maybe it worked for some – the overall power and gothic-ness of the experience were palpable.
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