Jane Thornton, adapted from the novel by Emily Brontë
Theatre Royal, York
This is not a haunting production. Whilst the piece will give any A level students a good introduction to the story of Emily Bronte's classic novel, any devout lovers of Wuthering Heights's ghostly, passion swept, gothic atmosphere will go home disappointed.
The storm-ridden, all-encompassing yet thwarted life-long (and beyond!) love story between Heathcliffe and Catherine Earnshaw needs little introduction. Such a famous tale has to be both a challenge and a temptation to any potential adapter, and Jane Thornton presents the five actors with many roles as well as a great deal of narration. Potentially this could work well, providing reflective story telling to relieve the tension of the high drama and destructive clash between nature and culture.
However Director Sue Dunderdale and Designer Lorna Ritchie have confusingly set this clash of the wild moors and the comfortable Linton's home universally within a dark, industrial cotton mill. This is explained in the programme as 'inscrutably linked' to the geographical landscape. In production it is solely bleak and inscrutable, without giving any contrast for the actors to work within their different settings. We get scant real impression of the claustrophobic brutal atmosphere of Wuthering Heights and the refined gentility of The Grange and its library.
What little idea we are given of the undeniable force of nature both within Bronte's two protagonists (and indeed her own nature and love of the desolate moors) and the unforgiving landscape is provided in the repeated motif of lightening and one small trough of water which the actors use to splash themselves. Catherine's (Jessica Harris) first slosh of water at the side of the stage to indicate her rain-drenched journey across the moors proved more entertaining to the audience than absorbing.
This is counteracted to some extent by Kate Waters' absolutely excellent fight scenes which definitely deserved the gasps they provoked. These were violent and powerful and propelled the second half of the piece with a dark display of how those who are brutalised themselves only go on to bully, abuse and intimidate others.
Heathcliffe's (Joel Fry) treatment at the hands of his step brother Hindley (Nick Figgis), his rejection from the company of the Lintons and the loss of his only love Catherine would fuel any vengeful temperament. Heathcliffe is described as a "fierce, wolf like, pitiless" character but this is not the performance Fry delivers. We meet a pigeon-toed, self pitying, sensitive boy who never quite grows up to be the passionate, bitter, overwhelming, raging presence that Catherine's own tempestuous spirit is intrinsically linked to. Indeed Harris herself (who plays both parts of mother and daughter) is more convincing as the tamed, somewhat spoilt Young Catherine, than as the impetuous, arrogant, free-spirited woman who captured Heathcliffe's heart and is his "soul".
Despite the strengths of the supporting actors, if the intense, unbreakable love of Catherine and Heathcliffe is not apparent, any production will struggle. Kate Ambler, (playing Isabella Linton, Frances and Nelly Dean) shines through and works well in much of the narration whilst providing sympathy and a steadfast foil to the other characters in Nelly and a naïve, unfortunate pawn in Heathcliffe's plans in her portrayal of Isabella.
Richard Taylor's complementary music, composed for this play using the words of Emily Bronte's own poetry, gives a necessary break to the narration, and interestingly add the author's personal voice to the her work of fiction. Two poems are quoted in the programme, including the reflection on her untamed landscape, "Roaring like thunder like soft music sighing". However we are left wondering whether this production really presents us with:
"Man's spirit away from its drear dungeon sending
Bursting the fetters and breaking the bars."
Reviewer: Cecily Boys