Wuthering Heights @ Birmingham Rep, Birmingham

cast list
Amanda Ryan
Antony Byrne
Susannah York
Toby Danzic

directed by
Indhu Rubasingham
Featuring accents thicker than a Lancashire hotpot, this is not a radical reworking of Bronte’s novel rather a plot-dense production with an unexpected comic quality.

Director Indhu Rubasingham has remained faithful to the bleak moors of Yorkshire with their atmosphere of paranoia and the supernatural. And, as in the novel, it is through the eyes of housekeeper Nelly, played by the excellent Susannah York that we see the tale of Heathcliffs revenge on his masters and his tragic tryst with Catherine Earnshaw.

The plot, as ever, involes siblings Cathy and Hindley, and their adopted brother Heathcliff, a foundling. An urchin from the streets of Liverpool, he is a dark, uneducated child, rescued by the childrens father and raised alongside them to the delight of Cathy who shares his uncultivated, wild nature. But when their father dies and Hindley becomes the master of the house, Heathcliff is lowered to the status of servant and scorned for his lack of education.

Cathy, as a lady of potential, is taken in and refined by the neighbouring family, The Lintons, outgrowing Heathcliffs affections and inadvertently forcing him from The Heights. On his return years later he finds Cathy has married Edgar Linton who is portrayed to much comic effect by Toby Danzic as a weak willed mother’s boy. With his former tormenter Hindley now a broken man, he uses the opportunity to further himself, which he sees as the only way to gain Cathys affections and the revenge he desires.

Emily Brontes sister Charlotte described, in her prelude to the novel, how the characters of Wuthering Heights ‘breathe lightning’, and this is the essence of this stage version. It rattles through the intense plot at breakneck speed, but still manages to keep the raw energy and playfulness that the story dictates. Steering clear of the gothic horror aspects that have appeared almost laughable in previous screen adaptations, the supernatural is never allowed to overwhelm. Instead this version concentrates on the playfulness of the lovers as brother and sister and celebrates the strengths of the characters by reataining much of the original text.

Amanda Ryan, as Cathy, dressed in a crimson gown, appears every bit the prickly, twisted wild rose of the novel, lolling and fawning over her husband Edgar and then switching her focus to Heathcliff in an instant. Ryan plays Miss Earnshaw as a society brat, unchanged from the rebellious tearaway who is well used to getting her own way throughout her youth. Despite her obvious faults however it is impossible not to be engulfed by the character’s carefree nature and charm, and this adds real warmth to counter balance Antony Byrnes Heathcliff.

Byrne is particularly deft at bringing out the darker aspects of the character, manhandling his wife Isabella and thrashing Cathys daughter to become the ogre of the play’s second half.

The whole affair could easily have been overemotional and camp, but it is the tongue in cheek style that prevents us taking Cathys wailing and Heathcliffs thuggary too seriously. April De Angelis adaptation uses modern comedy as a counter weight to the melodramatic plot. The pompous Mr Lockwoods self assuredness as a womaniser is the source of much of this comedy, and his back and forth with Nelly makes for an interesting culture clash that keeps the play’s feet firmly on the ground.

Subtle use of light and shadow help to draw the audience into the world of The Heights from the start as Nelly tells the story to Mr Lockwood while the rest of the characters re-enact it around them. As a result of this device the piece flows quickly and covers many of the novel’s subplots, from the pious Christians threatening damnation on all, to the drunken Hindleys attempted murder of his own child. These events weave nicely into the main narrative and give the production real texture.

As always with such adaptations the question arises over the need to rework something so well loved by so many. Here the answer is simple: this is a faithful, visual representation of a novel that can be at times overwhelming, a staging that only enhances the strength of the central story.

Condensing that raw energy is a challenge that no stage version could achieve, but though some elements of the story are glossed over due to time restrictions, this production comes as close as any and still manages to stamp its own identity on the piece, with excellent performances and stylish visuals.

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