Royal Exchange, Manchester.
“Terror made me cruel; and finding it useless to attempt shaking the creature off, I pulled its wrist on to the broken pane, and rubbed it to and fro till the blood ran down and soaked the bedclothes…” Wuthering Heights.
Like director Bryony Shanahan, writer Andrew Sheridan hadn’t read Emily Brontë’s classic novel before working on his adaptation. In a blog piece he wrote for The Big Issue he admits, with disarming honesty, that up to that point he’d thought of it as “a wishy-washy romantic classic about two people who fell in love and argued a bit“. Anyone in the Royal Exchange’s audience, who is labouring under a similar misconception, won’t have to sit through too much of Sheridan’s adaption before they realise how very mistaken they’ve been. Blood, spit, cruelty and spite, his Penistone Crag is hewn from a pleasingly punkish rock.
Any attempt to reimagine Wuthering Heights for the theatre is going to be a risky and potentially divisive endeavour, and not just because of those who might be expecting a touch of Mills & Boon with added inclement weather. Most readers of the book, especially those who love and admire it, are likely to have a very personal perspective on the story and its characters. Anything that deviates from that is going to require some willingness on their part to just go with what has been re-imagined.
In the interest of full disclosure, I devoured Wuthering Heights multiple times during my youth. As an adolescent, it spoke to me of rebelliousness and non-conformity, offering permission of sorts to push at the boundaries of convention. So it is, in truth, a shock to see how, having come to the book as adults, Shanahan and Sheridan present so much of Cathy and Heathcliff’s behaviour in the first half of the show as childish – a girl and a boy playing games and acting out, rather than two young people wrestling with hormones and emotions.
In fairness, the two characters do develop, but initially their thoughts and actions are quite broad brush, cartoonish at times and it took a while to adjust to that. Brontë’s multi-generational, time-shifting book has been whittled down into something more manageable, with the production focusing in on Catherine and Heathcliffe. There’s a strong focus in the opening scenes on becoming, being shaped by the actions of others, but also dreaming and imagining, struggling to be more than a product of time and place. Sheridan’s script is at pains to emphasise though that some childhood experiences leave marks.
Neatly divided in two, if the production’s first half could be broadly be summed up as playtime, then the second is most definitely payback. Hindley’s rejection by his father, Cathy’s frustration at the demands of polite society, and the multiple cruelties inflicted upon Heathcliffe all return to haunt the adults they have become. The energy that had previously found free expression outdoors, on the moors, is now contained, and prone to turn in on itself. Storytelling becomes more structured as well as more concentrated.
Famously, way back in 1847, Brontë felt compelled to hide behind the nom-de-plume of Ellis Bell to escape the prejudices of a male-dominated publishing world. Within a context where, nearly two centuries later, women who write for the theatre struggle to access opportunities, the Royal Exchange’s decision to commission a male writer on this occasion seems careless. Especially as their main stage isn’t exactly awash with the work of female playwrights.
Andrew Sheridan’s script does the job. It’s enjoyably funny, at times unexpectedly so, but it’s earth-bound, and rarely soars. Occasionally passages of Emily Brontë’s beautifully concise writing take centre stage, giving clear voice to Cathy’s inner turmoil.
As Cathy, Rakhee Sharma delivers a powerhouse performance, taking you on a journey from strong-willed young girl to a woman broken by the world she finds herself in, and more painfully by the choices she has made. Her final scenes are heart-rending. Samantha Power’s Nelly is a joy – all plain-speaking, dry humour and a big heart. While Rhiannon Clements is impressive as a fun-seeking and very likeable Isabella. David Crellin feels slightly underused, but there are well-drawn performances from Dean Fagan as man-child Edgar and Gurjeet Singh as the embittered Hindley.
Alex Austin’s Heathcliff is admirably distinctive, and I could hear the effect he was having on some excited audience members. For me, as a characterisation, it’s just too mannered. When Heathcliff returns to Wuthering Heights from London, he is changed – seemingly having studied a course in Dickensian villainy while down there – and become all snideness and slime, with no trace of smoulder.
Viewed from above designer Cécile Trémolières’ network of platforms evokes the contour lines of a topographical map. The stage is dotted with small clusters of thin grass, handfuls of dirt, a few rocks and some mismatched wooden parlour chairs. More parched prairie garden than wild and windy moor, the setting is too tame to convey any real sense of the distinctive landscape that shapes both the novel and its characters. All that artificial greenery is stripped way for the second half, leaving a place devoid of ‘nature’, somewhere hopes fail to thrive.
Shanahan’s production is at its most satisfying when communicating via the more abstract expressiveness of music and movement. Alexandra Faye Braithwaite’s compositions (beautifully performed live by Sophie Galpin and Becky Wilkie) elevate proceedings, as they range from quietly ethereal to raucously rousing.
Visually, scenes thrillingly reference the outpourings of fertile, and often feverish, imaginations. Running riot across the moors, the young Cathy and Heathcliffe playfully throw around heavy rocks with seemingly superhuman strength, as if they have become characters within the fantastic stories they tell themselves. Similarly, Heathcliff’s belief that no one dies is echoed in the opening scene of the second act, when both the living and the dead assemble to witness his return from London. Most strikingly, Cathy desperately flaps two pillows in a futile effort to take flight from her sickbed at Thrushcross Grange, stray feathers flutter around her, but her feet fail to lift from the floor of her “gilded cage”.
Frustratingly, there are elements of this Wuthering Heights that I’ll never grow to love, however many times I see it, but there is so much of it that is impossible to resist. Especially the gorgeously choreographed and sound-tracked set pieces, and the vivid performances.
Despite its determination to not recreate Brontë’s book on stage, this version still somehow drove me back to its original source. As I reread the novel, a world I thought I knew all too well seemed suddenly refreshed. Shanahan’s raw and emotional production has infiltrated my imagination and there is no going back. Power’s Nelly, Fagan’s Edgar are there now in my mind as I follow the familiar lines on the pages, and it’s Sharma’s voice I hear speaking Cathy’s words, and her face at the window of Wuthering Heights sobbing to be let in on a freezing cold winter night.
Performances seen on 12 & 21 February, & 4 March 2020.
Images by Helen Murray