Known for taking an unconventional approach to presenting classic stories to a contemporary audience, Emma Rice has taken Bronte’s tragic love story of Catherine and Heathcliffe and given it a comic make over with exaggerated characterisation and overly dramatic performance. Audience members familiar with Rice’s work will be quite at home with a controversial interpretation but others may find it difficult to settle into, especially if one was expecting a true-to-tale performance. Rice’s style isn’t for everyone (hence her departure from the Globe theatre), and probably not for the purists amongst us, which would account for the dichotomy of the empty seats after the interval and the standing ovation at the end.
Written in 1847, Wuthering Heights is an exploration of family, passion, love, madness, revenge and control, all set on the remote and tempestuous Yorkshire moors. The family dynamics presented to Mr Lockwood at the beginning of the novel are very complex and Rice does an admirable job of trying to explain these to any novices in the audience (and remind those of us who read the novel some time ago). Wuthering Heights isn’t an easy novel to present on the stage because of the limitations of time, but also because of the importance of the setting which in itself almost becomes a character, framing the novel alongside Mr Lockwood’s narrative and providing atmosphere through pathetic fallacy. Rice recreates this backdrop with a large screen on which is projected the sky, often a grey, overcast and sinister expanse, (video design by Simon Baker) and through the Lead Moor (Jordan Laviniere) accompanied by others of the ensemble cast at different points during the play. While the prominent screen may seem an underused device, it surely highlights the significance of the weather to the telling of the story. Thanks to costume design by Anna Lewis, it is immediately apparent what Laviniere is representing through her bramble crown. As the Lead Moor, Laviniere plays a pivotal role as she is a guide for character and audience through the tale. She is fierce yet gentle, playful but stern and she lifts the audience through her vocal and dance. The refrain “I am the Moor” (composed by Ian Ross) is powerful and evocative.
As our two leads, Lucy McCormick (Catherine) and Liam Tamne (Heathcliffe) encapsulate the many similarities and differences between Catherine and Heathcliffe. During the play, Catherine says “Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same…” and the love/hate relationship ensues. For this reviewer, while we see character development with Heathcliffe, Catherine is very much presented to be a one dimensional character, and this is a shame. She is almost immediately a manic character and does a lot of screaming and shouting and shaking – there is no descent in madness here. There are also no redeeming qualities, and the audience is confused as to why Edgar ever proposes. The more ethereal Catherine in Act 2 is a stark contrast and McCormick maintains a non-speaking presence for the entirety of Act 2.
The play is presented episodically as we move through the story, but the episodes are short due to aforementioned time limitations and because of this, there really isn’t the time to fully explore the complex relationship between Catherine and Heathcliff, and here the audience is left wanting. Act 1 focuses mainly on this relationship before the narrative moves onto other relationships. The interval is somewhat of a relief as at 1 hour 30 minutes, Act 1 is long and dense.
In Act 2, young Cathy takes more of central role and Mirabelle Gremaud gives us a character to root for. Having already played Frances in Act 1, and been a prominent and eye-catching moor due to her beautiful harmonies and fluid dance moves, she has already endeared herself to the audience and for this reviewer, her nuanced, loving portrayal of Cathy steals the show. Her chemistry with Tama Phethean (Hindley and then later Hareton) is undeniable and there is a determined sweetness about her character that deserves all the blue skies and blossom that the stage can muster. In a similar vein, Phethean offers a painful and heartfelt portrayal of his characters, but in particular Hareton; you can see his struggles with his anger but his love for Cathy is pure. Bravo to this pair!
Act 2 though also gives us Little Linton played by Katy Owen. Owen also played Isabella Linton in Act 1 and this reviewer struggles with the vision and portrayal of both of these characters. This is not to take away from Owen’s obvious talents, particularly in movement and contortion, but I can’t get on board with the vision for what is almost pantomime in this tragic telling. Isabella is childish, but her whininess and over-exaggerated dance moves don’t seem to fit and it becomes too much. Although, I have to admit to very much enjoying her reasons for sliding down the bannisters – there are belly laughs galore at this moment. As Little Linton, Owen presents almost the same character, but even more exaggerated. To use my former phrase, it was just too much. This reviewer cannot get on board with a pantomime Wuthering Heights I’m afraid.
It is almost ironic that a stripped back stage, with backstage and crew on full view, with minimalist wooden props, and a small but impactful on-stage band, that promised such a raw interpretation was just…too much. It seems that Rice has thrown everything at this production, including the kitchen sink. There was singing, dancing, acting, physical theatre, contortion, puppetry, slow motion, breaking the fourth wall and even a rock concert in the middle of Act 1 as Catherine belted out a grunge track complete with hand held mic and a wind machine. It felt so out of place with the folky and rustic vibe that had been created by Ian Ross. The phrase less- -is-more comes to mind.
I don’t love this production, but I can appreciate everything that has gone into it. The actors give passionate performances throughout, the wooden set design (Vicki Mortimer) emphasises the chaos of family homes in a minimalistic way and the band creates atmosphere and ambiance. Where I struggle is with Rice’s vision of how she wants the audience to feel and what she wants the audience to take away with them as the curtain falls.
Wuthering Heights is playing at Nottingham’s Theatre Royal until Saturday 30 April.