King’s Theatre, Edinburgh
I can’t think of a better match than Emily Brontë and Emma Rice: two renegade spirits, purveyors of verve and rebellion; two flawed geniuses, whose work is – love it or loathe it – undeniably compelling.
In this Wise Children production, Rice strips Wuthering Heights down to its beating heart, illuminates its essence. Anyone familiar with Rice’s previous work (at Kneehigh, for example) will know to expect a chaotic, frenzied telling, a stage so bursting with life and energy that it’s sometimes hard to know where to look. And that’s what we get. It’s dazzling; it’s dizzying – and I adore it. This is the sort of theatre that excites me.
Instead of Nelly Dean, we have The Moor, the landscape personified as a Greek chorus, whose Leader (Nandhe Bhebhe) narrates and placates, while her acolytes sing and dance their embodiments of weather, conscience and commentary. It’s a bold move, but it works. The setting is integral to Brontë’s novel; why not bring it to life? It’s also a neat way of conveying the labyrinthine plot in a mere three hours, so that we’re never in any doubt about who’s who, or how they’re all related, despite the too-similar names and the double-roles.
Adding to the bustle and busyness, there’s a live band on stage throughout (Sid Goldsmith, Nadine Lee and Pat Moran), as well as some stunning back projection, depicting turbulent skies and flocks of birds, which soar noisily into the clouds whenever someone dies. Rice’s signature puppetry puts in a brief appearance too, as the infant cuckoo, Heathcliff, lands in the Wuthering nest.
Rice foregrounds the differences between the Earnshaws and the Lintons: Hindley (Tama Phethean), Cathy (Lucy McCormick) and Heathcliff (Liam Tamne) are played as dark, almost monstrous figures, while Edgar (Sam Archer) and Isabella (Katy Owen) are light and clownish. This unevenness of tone serves to highlight how very dangerous the Earnshaws are, and it’s almost unbearable to witness the silly, foppish Lintons veer into their orbit, knowing that every encounter takes them closer to sealing their own dreadful fates. Owen garners many laughs with her cartoonish depiction of adolescent naïvety – she’s a gifted comedian – but Isabella is a petulant shrew in a tiger’s paw, and this is clearer here than in any other adaptation I have seen.
Emily Brontë purists will hate this show; it’ll give ’em the heeby-jeebies. But there’s a row of teenagers sitting behind me at the theatre tonight – they’re on a school trip – and they love it. I can hear them laughing and gasping, even exclaiming out loud. And Wuthering Heights is a YA book, isn’t it? A cautionary tale about a very, very toxic relationship, all raging hormones and melodrama, perfectly encapsulated on this anarchic stage.