Wuthering Heights

Emily Brontë, adapted by April De Angelis
Birmingham Rep

Production photo

Staging one of the most well-known works of literature can leave a director exposed to criticism: he or she can face derision if the production veers away from stereotype or there can be an absence of respect for a show if it lacks an unadventurous approach.

April De Angelis's adaptation sticks to Brontë's novel in that it tells the story through two narrators: Mr Lockwood, a new tenant renting a house from the surly Heathcliff, who lives at nearby Wuthering Heights; and housekeeper Nelly Dean, encouraged by Lockwood to explain what happened to Catherine Earnshaw whose ghost appeared to him in a terrifying dream.

Despite the excellent, atmospheric staging, most people will remember this version for the casting of Antony Byrne as Heathcliff. He could hardly be more different from the rugged, brooding, handsome character usually associated with the role. Byrne, hair receding, mature and nothing like the gypsy of Brontë's novel, might be off-putting at the beginning - but once you see past that, you notice a staggeringly good performance.

Byrne evokes fear in the other characters because of his brutal, bitter, vindictive ways, yet you're able to feel compassion for him because of the trauma he suffered during his upbringing.

Byrne is also able to pull off the passionate and stormy scenes with Cathy, appearing devastated at her cruelty when she says it would be degrading to marry Heathcliff even though she loves him.

Amanda Ryan is equally impressive as Cathy, presenting her as a flippant, fatuous free spirit. She's self-conscious and behaves badly to those around her, eventually regressing when she's unable to get her own way by resuming her relationship with Heathcliff.

Ryan gives an excellent performance, never succumbing to the temptation of going over the top in her portrayal of a character who can be more petulant than passionate.

While Ryan excels, Susannah York is slightly disappointing as Nelly. The part doesn't allow for much characterisation as Nelly is there mainly to move the story on. Susannah York never dominates the stage, as someone with her experience would be expected to. Although her projection is flawless, she surprisingly stumbles over her lines on occasions.

As the other narrator, Simon Coates (Lockwood) gets all the wittiest lines. His patronising view of northerners and their dreary part of the world is a welcome break from the wretched, revengeful events being played out around him.

Good support comes from Edmund Kingsley - forget my initial notion that maybe he should have been cast as Heathcliff - as Cathy's brother Hindley; Toby Dantzic, the mild but weak neighbour Edgar Linton who marries Cathy as he's from the right social class; and Emma Noakes as Isabella, Edgar's younger sister whose love for Heathcliff soon turns to hatred after their marriage as he treats her appallingly.

Indhu Rubasingham skilfully directs a production which is as stormy as the Yorkshire moors on which the story centres. All credit to her for giving Antony Byrne the lead role - he rises to heights which might not have appeared possible.

"Wuthering Heights" continues until October 18th

Reviewer: Steve Orme

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