Cathy stomps home

Emma Rice’s adaptation of Wuthering Heights draws out its cautionary messages for modern times. She believes it’s a story of revenge, not romance

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In 2016 when the Calais Jungle was making headlines Emma Rice turned to her bookcase and dusted off her high school copy of Wuthering Heights.

“There was a lot of conversation about how many unaccompanied children the UK might be prepared to give a home to and I felt enraged at how we could be quibbling over the most vulnerable in society,” she says. “I also thought it was a stupid mistake to not take these children in, to show them care and compassion and welcome them into the community. By excluding them we would be planting a time bomb of hatred.”

One such bomb can be found in Emily Brontë’s classic 1847 text. Heathcliff is found abandoned at Liverpool Docks and taken in by Mr Earnshaw, but the patriarch’s kindness isn’t matched by his son, Hindley, or the wider community. Filled with rage, bitterness and grief he sets out on a brutal course of action designed to punish those who showed him cruelty.

“With this in mind, I decided to treat Wuthering Heights not as a romance but as a revenge tragedy,” says Rice, who ponders now whether calling it a cautionary tale might be an even better description. “Be careful what you seed!”

If revenge is what Rice is trying to achieve, she’s having fun doing it. The former artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe, a bitter parting in 2018 led her to founding Bristol-based theatre company Wise Children. It was named after Angela Carter’s Shakespearian last novel, which was also a meaningful first production for Rice, who brought joy and anarchy to the stage in abundance. A handful of projects and one pandemic later, Wuthering Heights offers the same riotous stage innovation, with the Yorkshire Moors themselves “like a wild and ancient Greek Chorus” joining in on song and dance.

“I love them!” says Rice, who’s done away with judgemental maid Nelly Dean and instead employed the Moors as narrator. “They are as cool as they are hot and bring a fresh perspective to this story.”

Beyond that, the artistic director insists she’s been “super faithful” to the text – telling the whole story, including that of young Cathy and Hareton, who inhabit the rarely explored second half of the book. She continues to find it compelling and contemporary.

“Catherine is one of the most complex characters in literature and, in her, I see myself and friends at different times in our lives. She clearly has some undiagnosed behavioural issues, and we all found these exciting to explore. She was also in a system that gave her no freedom to express herself or her needs.

“In many ways Wuthering Heights is a lesson in female repression and Catherine cannot bear it. She describes her blood jumping in her veins and I, for one, cheer her on as one of the first punk rockers in our culture,” says Rice, whose female protagonist stomps around the stage in Docs and belts out heavy metal numbers.

“Her and Heathcliff’s relationship is not for the faint hearted but, my, it is powerful,” adds Rice, who cries every night as she watches Lucy McCormick and Ash Hunter bring the vibrant characters to life. “I live their pain, their grief, their despair and their anger.”

The production arrives in York next week, the only northern dates for 2021. Asked if it’s meaningful for her to bring the play to its home county she replies: “Hell yes! I cannot wait to bring this story home and to share what we have created with a northern audience. Through the character and chorus of the Moor the landscape features strongly – and in an amazingly vibrant way. I hope that the Yorkshire audience will take us to their hearts and we have taken the book into ours. We can’t wait.”

Wuthering Heights is at York Theatre Royal, 9-20 November. It returns to the Lowry in Salford in May 2022

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