Review: WUTHERING HEIGHTS, National Theatre

Emma Rice brings Catherine and Heathcliff to London for a run in the Lyttelton

By: Feb. 05, 2022

Review: WUTHERING HEIGHTS, National Theatre

Review: WUTHERING HEIGHTS, National Theatre "I am Heathcliff - he's always, always in my mind." Wise Children's latest production - an ambitious adaptation of Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights - has finally made its way to The National Theatre, following COVID delays and a rearranged tour, starting at the Bristol Old Vic last year. Catherine and Heathcliff will make themselves at home in the Lyttelton Theatre for the next few weeks before heading back out on the road.

Emma Rice doesn't do things by halves. After bringing the sprawling Angela Carter novel Wise Children to the stage back in 2018, she has taken on the challenge of another seemingly unadaptable story. If you've read Wuthering Heights you'll know it's a complex web of time jumps and switches between unreliable narrators, just as concerned with complicated legal matters as the dark majesty of the Yorkshire Moors. It's difficult to whittle the story down too much, as cutting even the slightest thing could affect the plot much further down the line, leaving you with nothing but the bare bones of the book.

This complexity may well have served as inspiration in its own twisted way, as Rice acknowledges early on that it's difficult to keep on top of. The end result is a clear and (reasonably) concise re-telling that is easy to follow without being patronising - and if all else fails, there's a family tree in the programme.

As in the book, the show is framed by Lockwood's time at Thrushcross Grange, only the story is told to him by a physical manifestation of the Yorkshire Moor, acting as a chorus in a Greek tragedy mould. This is a neat and theatre-friendly way of dealing with the narrator issue, ensuring that the story is told from one perspective - keeping that side of things simple.

Lockwood hears (and sees) the introduction of Heathcliff to the Earnshaw household, where he instantly forms a bond with Catherine and attracts the ire of her brother Hindley. Heathcliff and Catherine are kept apart due to a number of outside forces, such as a marriage proposal from Edgar Linton and Heathcliff's revenge plot against Hindley - then, finally, Catherine's death in childbirth. She continues to torment Heathcliff, however, and he carries on his extended revenge through the next generation of residents at the Heights and the Grange. Ultimately, he's counting down the days until he can be reunited with Catherine in the afterlife.

As ever, music plays a key part in this Wise Children production, with Ian Ross' mostly folksy score being performed live by a band that feels just as much a part of the story as the actors. At times the music lingers in the background, before coming to the fore in key numbers such as the introduction of the Moor, and "The Bluebell". The musical highlight of the night has to be Catherine's mic drop moment; I don't want to ruin the effect by giving too much away, but all I will say is that you need to understand the proto-punk nature of Emily Bronte's novel.

There are so many exceptional performances on display, from Tama Phethean's aggressive yet vulnerable Hareton Earnshaw and Witney White's independent Cathy Linton, to Nandi Bhebhe's spirited Leader of the Moor and Sam Archer's well-meaning Lockwood (not to mention how he develops Edgar Linton's character over the course of the show). Katy Owen remains a crowd favourite, with her pampered Little Linton and Isabella drawing raucous laughter; the contrast as Linton feeds off his father's cruelty and keeps Cathy prisoner is genuinely shocking, and Owen plays this transition perfectly.

It's good to see an actor of colour in the role of Heathcliff, taking a cue from the original text; this allows the production to explore the intersectionality of class and race in the character, hopefully sparking more conversations. Even if this hadn't been a conscious effort, you'd struggle to find someone better than Ash Hunter. His voice ripples with emotion as he battles against his position in the household, and later as he mourns Catherine's death - on top of this, he also has great comic timing, delivering in a deadpan manner.

As excellent as everyone else is, it's hard to take your eyes off Lucy McCormick. She is Catherine Earnshaw. Every other portrayal of the character pales in comparison, as it's clear she completely understands Catherine's contradictory nature; the complex mix of wildness, fragility, co-dependence, narcissism, and playfulness make her so engaging to watch. Catherine can be genuinely awful at times, but thanks to McCormick's performance you can't help but root for her.

If you've previously not got on well with Wuthering Heights (either through the book or various screen adaptations), please don't let that put you off. This production is full of drama and full of heart - somehow Emma Rice manages to find hope in a story that initially appears irredeemable. This is a beautiful show that truly demonstrates the power of theatre.

Wuthering Heights is at The National Theatre until 19 March and on tour until 4 June

Picture credit: Steve Tanner

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