Wuthering Heights

May 26, 2022 | By More

★★★☆☆      Overstretched

King’s Theatre: Wed 25 – Sat 28 May 2022
Review by Hugh Simpson

Emma Rice’s adaptation of Wuthering Heights for Wise Children with the UK National Theatre, Bristol Old Vic and York Theatre Royal is full of energy and ideas. Indeed, too full for its own good at times.

Emily Bronte’s only novel, with its gothic saga of obsession, love, cruelty and revenge across the generations, is a far more sprawling, expansive affair than is generally appreciated. Adaptations, whether on film or in song, tend to concentrate on the doomed love of Catherine Earnshaw and her adopted brother, the brooding foundling Heathcliff, but there is a great deal more to the story.

Liam Tamne as Heathcliff. Pic: company.

Despite jettisoning some of the structure, most of the events of the original book remain in Rice’s version. This does have the consequence of making this an unfashionably long production at just under three hours.

In particular, ninety minutes in, when most recent touring productions would be winding up, we have only just reached the interval. There is no doubt that this should have been shorter, and it does threaten to overstay its welcome on more than one occasion.

Not that this is the kind of overly-faithful retelling that many such adaptations of set texts resort to, or that the school parties in attendance were probably expecting.

decidedly irreverent

The production is described as ‘shot through with music and dance’ and there are plenty of full-blown musicals that have a smaller proportion of singing and dancing than this does. Add in puppetry, physical theatre and a decidedly irreverent approach to much of the text, and the result is constantly inventive, if a little overstuffed.

The Wuthering Heights company. Pic Steve Tanner

The complications of the story do mean that it is necessary to consult the (digital-only) programme’s family tree to work out the various inter-cousin marriages. Digital programmes may be the future for many reasons, but they run the risk of excluding those without the necessary technology, skills or inclination, not to mention anyone who balks at giving their post code and email address just so they can see a cast list.

Writer-director Rice (formerly of Kneehigh and the Globe) appears to have an attitude to the book that is an uneasy, if entirely understandable, one of deep admiration while still finding much of it rather silly. Constant fourth-wall breaking and commenting on the more ridiculous elements of the story do threaten to undermine the atmosphere.

The same goes for Katy Owen’s bravura comic turns as Isabella Linton and her son Linton Heathcliff. However brilliant they may be in themselves, they work against the darker central elements rather than with them.

There certainly is a great deal of darkness on show. Liam Tamne’s Heathcliff is undoubtedly presented as a victim of prejudice, and his anger is shown as thoroughly merited. However, anyone who has a vague idea that the character is a romantic hero rather than a controlling abuser will be hard pushed to retain it on the basis of this production.

Liam Tamne as Heathcliff. Pic: Steve Tanner.

Lucy McCormick’s Catherine, meanwhile, teeters on the edge of overwrought but maintains a ferocity that is frequently disturbing.

Other noteworthy performances include the light comic touch of Craig Johnson, Sam Archer’s controlled physicality and Tama Phethean’s muscular intensity.

The book’s main narrator, the servant Nelly, is replaced by a Greek chorus symbolising the Yorkshire moors, led by Nandi Bhebhe. Movement direction from Etta Murfitt combines with Ian Ross’s doomy, indie-folk music, performed by a band led by Nadine Lee, make for entertaining musical interludes.

A comic aside that the music is not catchy enough is something of a hostage to fortune and does reinforce that there is probably too much of it.

Indeed, there is too much of everything in this baggy, overstretched affair. An excess of imagination is a very minor crime, however, and there is a great deal here to please, notably John Leader’s puppetry, Vicki Mortimer’s elemental set and Simon Baker’s sound and video design.

Tighter editing would have made for a more compelling outcome, but the commitment and vitality of so much of the production do make up for the problems.

Running time: Two hours and 55 minutes (including one interval)
King’s Theatre, 2 Leven Street, EH3 9LQ
Wednesday 25 – Saturday 28 May 2022
Evenings at 7.30 pm; Matinees Sat at 2.00 pm.
Information and tickets:  Book here.

ENDS

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