Wuthering Heights

Emily Brontë, a new version by Andrew Sheridan
Royal Exchange Theatre
Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester
to

Rakhee Sharma (Cathy) & Alex Austin (Heathcliff) Credit: Helen Murray
Rakhee Sharma (Cathy) Credit: Helen Murray
Alex Austin (Heathcliff) Credit: Helen Murray
Gurjeet Singh (Hindley) Credit: Helen Murray
Samantha Power (Nelly) Credit: Helen Murray
Rhiannon Clements (Isabella) Credit: Helen Murray
Dean Fagon (Edgar) Credit: Helen Murray
David Crellin(Earnshaw) Credit: Helen Murray
Rebecca Wilkie & Sophie Galpin (musicians) Credit: Helen Murray

Although perhaps not the obvious choice to adapt this classic gothic novel of love, obsession and cruelty, Andrew Sheridan's refreshing new version of Emily Brontë's only completed novel, directed by recently appointed Co-Artistic Director Bryony Shanahan, works surprisingly well for the most part.

On entering a darker than usual auditorium, the audience sees Cécile Trémolières' effective recreation of the Yorkshire moors with the dead branches of a wind-blown tree reaching over the stage, its trunk incorporating the equipment of the two musicians, regular RashDash multi-instrumentalist Becky Wilkie and Manchester-based musician Sophie Galpin, who open the show with folk inspired harmonies from Alexandra Faye Braithwaite's hauntingly atmospheric score.

Sheridan's adaptation very sensibly doesn't try to squeeze the whole of the novel into two and a half hours, instead focussing strongly on the relationship between Cathy (Rakhee Sharma) and Heathcliff (Alex Austin), from when Cathy's father (David Crellin) brings home the filthy young boy who growls like a dog at anyone who comes near him after finding him living on the streets of Liverpool to the tragic ending of their stormy partnership. Cathy's brother Hindley (Gurjeet Singh) is jealous of the attention that their father and Cathy give to the intruder into their family and abuses him, which only drives Cathy closer to Heathcliff, and they promise never to be apart.

After his father's death, Hindley, returning from university with a new wife, Frances (Rhiannon Clements), takes over the Wuthering Heights estate, and Heathcliff is demoted from a brother to a servant. After an incident with a dog, Cathy spends time recovering at the home of the wealthy Linton family, learning more gentile ways and growing closer to Edgar Linton (Dean Fagan), who proposes to her—and she accepts.

After the interval, Heathcliff returns to Yorkshire, now wealthy and with the appearance of a teddy boy—not the cuddly Showaddywaddy recreations of the 1970s but the violent young men with flick-knives from the 1950s—and an attitude to match. By this time, Frances has died in childbirth (not of consumption) and Hindley is descending into alcoholism. Edgar isn't as pleased to see his return as Cathy is—or his young sister Isabella (also Clements), whose attentions Heathcliff encourages to make Cathy jealous. Of course it isn't going to end happily, but with a death and a final twist when we see their actions repeated in the next generation.

The story is Brontë's—or at least a section of hers—but the most striking element of this version is the modern-sounding dialogue that dwells on the violent, cruel and visceral but with elements of magic, as though Simon Stephens has been transplanted from a twentieth-century housing estate in Stockport to rural Yorkshire at the turn of the nineteenth century: Emily Brontë as 1990s In-Yer-Face theatre. Where many adaptations bounce you along from one plot point to another with only a sample of each, this provides extended scenes of dialogue that allow the audience to get to know the characters, and show the characters getting to know one another.

Shanahan's production introduces some physical interludes set to music, some of which work well but others become repetitive and kill the pace of the story. In fact, while the lengthy first act is very well-paced and quite compelling throughout, there are parts of the second half that drag, feeling unnecessarily drawn-out—I think it could benefit from losing at least ten minutes.

Austin's Heathcliff is unstable and intimidating throughout, a Cockney wide-boy amongst the Yorkshire landowners, but obsessive over Cathy and over his revenge on various others. Sharma's Cathy is very appealing and full of life but also an unpredictable free spirit who won't be controlled by anyone. Fagan's Edgar is endearingly embarrassed by everything but learns to stand up for himself later. Samantha Power as servant Nelly seems to age before our eyes, while Singh's Hindley gets older and more bitter. Clements's lovely performance as young Isabella, giggling over the handsome visitor, also stands out and provides some welcome humour.

While not entirely perfect, this production manages to marry a nineteenth century tale with a modern idiom and make it work well, making the harshness and cruelty of the original freshly shocking to a modern audience without appearing to be moving radically away from the original.

Reviewer: David Chadderton