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'Wuthering Heights' @ Bristol Old Vic ★ ★ ★

Wuthering Heights is a depressing tale. With a plot driven forward by death, Emily Brontë’s novel provides a difficult challenge for those wishing to adapt it for stage and screen.

By Katie Chalk, Arts Editor

Wuthering Heights is a depressing tale. With a plot driven forward by death, Emily Brontë’s novel provides a difficult challenge for those wishing to adapt it for stage and screen.

Given the calibre and budget of this production - with a highly publicised premier at the prestigious Bristol Old Vic, the signs were promising. With acclaimed director Emma Rice, of Kneehigh and Wise Children Theatre company fame at the helm, expectations were certainly high.

In terms of enjoying Rice’s trademark style, these expectations were not disappointed. With its talented live musicians, minimalist set and frequent use of puppets: this production effectively bridged the stylistic gap between the fairytale and gothic genres.

Lucy McCormick as Cathy | Image Courtesy of Steve Tanner

It was, however, the production’s attempts at lifting the mood too much which became its downfall. In an attempt to prevent an endless funeral-dirge ill-suited to a commercial theatre audience, this production launched itself, singing and dancing, too far in the other direction. To put it bluntly, it became tiring.

In Rice’s re-imagining, the main narrator, Nelly Dean, has been cut. In her place, the moor landscape is personified as a narrating chorus, a technique more at home at the Globe Theatre than in an adaptation of a nineteenth-century gothic novel.

Nandie Bhebe, nevertheless, gave the stand-out, stage commanding performance as ‘The Moor’ with her soaring voice and compelling narration. She did a spectacular job of driving the narrative forward, but it was exactly this relentless pace, dialogue and music which, at times, became overwhelming.

Ash Hunter takes on the role of Heathcliff in this Brontë classic | Image Courtesy of Steve Tanner

Lucy Mcormick’s Cathy and Ash Hunter’s Heathcliff had so much romantic potential. On paper the former’s boundless physical energy should have balanced the latter’s authoritative stoicism with romantic tension.

Sadly their relationship too, like the production as a whole, felt rushed: moving from childsplay to intense passion without any quiet moments to allow the chemistry to develop organically. It is a shame. This rendered more wacky moments like Cathy’s random impassioned rock ballad and Heathcliffe’s later necrophilic activities less convincing. The glue making those moments plausible- their kindred spirits- was not communicated.

Injecting genuine comedy was an impressive feat led mostly by Katy Owen. Playing Isabella Linton, she mischievously embraced all the tropes of naive youth until one particularly poignant moment, in the aftermath of Heathcliff’s rape when she implored the audience not to forget her name. As Linton, she completely carried the otherwise weak second act.

All this production needed were some changes in tone. The lighting especially supported a continuously upbeat atmosphere. The story is dark, this show needed moments of darkness too. The moors are such an iconic feature of the Brontë’s work and it is wonderful to have that landscape take centre stage. There was an opportunity there to use the chorus to reinforce the sense of isolation and peril. Instead, through repetitive musical snippets, the chorus prevented much-needed moments of stillness and quiet.

Featured Image: Steve Tanner

Will you be checking out Wuthering Heights at Bristol Old Vic?