Katy Owen

Wuthering Heights

25/05/22

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.

5 stars

Susan Singfield

Wise Children

04/06/20

BBC iPlayer

Emma Rice’s glorious stage adaptation of Angela Carter’s Wise Children is the most exciting theatrical production I’ve seen in my own living room, since lockdown began and I started trawling online offerings. Filmed at the York Theatre Royal, it’s right there on iPlayer (until July 9th), nestling amongst the Zoom panel shows and re-runs of old series, just waiting for you to click that mouse and let the mayhem begin.

It’s wild and wonderful, bawdy and tawdry – like watching Carter’s story come tumbling from the book, the word made flesh. Emma Rice’s adaptation revels in the novel’s magnificent excesses, amping up the theatricality, highlighting the slippery nature of identity and what it means to know who we are.

This is the story of illegitimate twins Dora and Nora Chance, who are celebrating their seventy-fifth birthday as the play opens. In this iteration, they are played by Gareth Snook and Etta Murfitt, who remain on stage throughout, narrating and commenting on  the tale as it unfolds. Their mother dies giving birth to them; their father, the preposterously successful Shakespearean actor, Melchior Hazard (Ankur Bahl/Paul Hunter) refuses to acknowledge them, and they are taken in by their mother’s landlady, Grandma Chance (Katy Owen), a shouty naturist, who puts them to work in the music halls as soon as possible. Their father’s twin brother, Peregrine (Sam Archer/Mike Shepherd), looks after them financially, and spoils them with presents whenever he visits. But the Hazards’ debauched extravagance means that nothing is immutable, and there are stepmothers, half-siblings and, yes, more twins at every turn. The Chances’ lives are never dull.

But this is an ode to theatre as well as the twins’ story. We are backstage and on stage as well as in the auditorium. There’s puppetry and physical theatre, Shakespearean tragedy and end-of-pier comedy. ‘What a joy it is to dance and sing,’ says Dora, and we see this realised in the fabulous teenage Dora and Nora (Melissa James and Omari Douglas), as they relish their showgirl flamboyance and explore their sexuality.

Vicki Mortimer’s design is as audacious and vibrant as the characters: a little touring caravan and ‘Wise Children’ spelled out in lights – all bright vivacity, a carnival of colour. The costumes are gaudy and unapologetically showbiz; Grandma Chance’s naked body suit is cartoonish, exaggerated and silly. It all works, a cacophony of artifice and illusion.

If you like theatre, then you will like this.

iPlayer. Now.

5 stars

Susan Singfield