It’s traditional when I review a show based on a famous book that I have to confess that I haven’t read it. Well, gentle reader, it will come as no surprise that I’ve never read Wuthering Heights – which is a disgrace for someone with an English degree – nor have I seen any adaptation; neither film, nor TV, not even the Northern Ballet’s dance version. My only familiarity with the book was leafing through the Wikipedia entry to get the gist of it, deciding it was quite complicated, and leaving it there.
You, on the other hand, will be fully aware of the complexities of Emily Bronte’s landmark 1847 novel of three generations of Yorkshire folk out on the wily windy moors and their faithful old retainer, Nelly Dean. Inspector Sands, in co-production with China Plate, the Royal and Derngate and the Oxford Playhouse, have taken the main substance of the story, modifying the language a little, whilst retaining its early Victorian character. Johanna Mårtensson’s costumes are authentic 1700s, as are the cast’s Yorkshire accents, and I suppose Ben Lewis’s sweary text is in keeping with the desperate life experiences of the characters – although personally I felt the four letter words jarred and were unnecessary. Let’s face it, there’s more to modernising a script than just adding in a few f***s.
Nevertheless, there’s a lot of good in this production. Primarily, it’s the plot; it captures the audience’s imagination and keeps you fully engaged through the best part of three hours. Lucinka Eisler’s direction puts the story-telling to the forefront, and the saga of the Earnshaws and the Lintons, together with the outsider Heathcliff, is presented with great clarity and power. An ensemble of six actors portray eleven characters, each of whom are extremely well drawn and identified; the actors deftly switching from one to another with just a quick costume change or a new vocal tic. The characterisations are both thoroughly entertaining and extremely convincing; Edgar’s whiny weediness, Hindley’s crass bullying, and Cathy’s teenage hot-headedness, for example, are all superbly conveyed.
Not only does the production tell the story well, it also creates an excellent atmosphere of brooding, of fear, and of the supernatural. Ben Ormerod’s lighting design, and in particular Elena Peña and Dan Balfour’s sound design constantly bombard us with unsettling intrusions. We all recognise how disconcerting the strange noises that a house can make all by itself at night in the dark can be; this production illustrates this beautifully. Some of the noises you can explain, others you can’t. If I were a resident of Wuthering Heights, there’s no doubt I’d be a nervous wreck after a few hours.
There are some superb directorial moments that stick in the mind, for example the brilliant way that the physical violence dished out by Hindley and Heathcliff is frequently implied rather than real, using sound and distance to achieve the same effect. There’s some fantastic knifeography when blades are being chucked around the stage willy-nilly. I loved the simple device of passing the greatcoat from one character to another to denote who has the power in the household at any one time – a very effective visual signal. There are some moments of musical anachronism, which is something that normally irritates me, but here they strangely work as a subtly ironic nod of the head between the production and the audience. Playing out to an easy listening version of Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights is a nice reminder of the wide influence the original book has had on so many other creative works.
So, what is achieved by telling the story in this more experimental, stylised manner, and with a semi-modernised text, that couldn’t have been achieved by giving us a straightforward, more classic presentation? By far the most powerful and memorable aspect to the production is Emily Bronte’s story itself, her characters and their dilemmas, the injustices they face and the sadnesses they endure. These elements should be present no matter how the story is presented. Sometimes an experimental production simply puts your back up and you resent it from the start. However, that’s not the case here. This is an engaging production; experimental perhaps, but it’s an experiment the audience is willing to risk, curious to see if it ultimately succeeds. We suspend our expectations and allow ourselves to be carried along in its direction of travel; and that eventual outcome is one – pretty much – of all-round satisfaction.
Certainly much of the strength of the production comes from the excellent ensemble who work together seamlessly. In particular, Giulia Innocenti’s Nelly is the lynchpin of the cast, hardly ever off stage, acting as both narrator and chorus, the still point in the turning world, as Eliot would have it. Likeable, fallible, wholly unsentimental, it’s a fantastic performance. I also really enjoyed Leander Deeny’s characterisations, especially as the gruff old Earnshaw and the milksop Edgar; and Nicole Sawyerr is terrific as the prissy Isabella, spoilt Frances, and belligerent Cathy.
An experimental presentation, but – with a slight cavil regarding the swear words – it’s an experiment that works; and it does full justice to Bronte’s novel and gripping story. The production enjoys one more week at the Royal and Derngate, before embarking on a tour to the Oxford Playhouse, Warwick Arts Centre, Rose Theatre Kingston and Northern Stage, Newcastle.
Production photos by Alex Brenner