Review: Wuthering Heights

At the Lowry, Salford, 4 May

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Inheritance is perhaps not the most startling theme of Emily Brontë’s classic text Wuthering Heights. Revenge, yes. Romance, of course. Nature, class, the supernatural – tick, tick, tick. But Wise Children’s creative new stage adaptation brings this theme to the fore.

Of course there is inherited wealth – the vehicle for Heathcliff’s revenge as he seeks to inherit not only Wuthering Heights but the neighbouring house of Thrushcross Grange through manipulating its heir into marrying his son. That’s a narrative that the cast of Wise Children explain with great clarity. But the inheritance of trauma and what we inherit from our familial and social circumstances, and our environment is what this innovative theatre company leaves its audiences pondering.

For Heathcliff, who was found mute and alone on Liverpool Docks by Mr Earnshaw, and then cruelly treated by his adopted brother and the wider community before being cast out to fend for himself on the harsh Yorkshire moors, the inheritance of anger and wildness seems obvious. Director Emma Rice was inspired to revive the 1847 text for stage in 2016 when the Calais Jungle was making headlines and she watched policy makers “quibble” over how many unaccompanied refugee children the UK might allow in.

“I 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,” she told Big Issue North ahead of the play’s debut in November.

Played by Liam Tamne, who moves as slickly from vulnerable to commanding as he does between accents, reinforcing the character’s ambiguous heritage, Heathcliff is one such bomb. But despite meting out revenge to both those who scorned and loved him, he remains a romantic character of wild and untameable passion.

Is Cathy, the one person to accept Heathcliff, afforded the same sympathies for her rebellious nature? In this production, yes. She is nerve-wrackingly portrayed by Lucy McCormick, who you can only imagine sleeps 21 hours a day to compensate for the energy she expends on stage for the other three. Even after she dies, Cathy is a fiery ball of pent-up emotion haunting the edges of the inspired set. What do we expect from a motherless girl, who spent a childhood roaming the rugged hills, exposed to violence and brutality, caught between two warring brothers – caught between the inheritance of these influences and the expectations of late 19th-century femininity?

Young Cathy, played by the beguiling Stephanie Hockley, navigates the emotional landscape her mother couldn’t

“Why can’t you be a good lass?” asks Mr Earnshaw in his parting words to her. “Why can’t you be a good father?” is her reply.

And how will all this play out on the next generation? What will young Catherine Linton, Hareton Earnshaw and Linton Heathcliff inherit from their dysfunctional parents? This rarely explored second half of the book is given Wise Children’s full attention for the second act. Under the control of Heathcliff their prospects appear as bleak as the moors – which are in fact vibrantly characterised by an ensemble cast led by Nandi Bhebhe, who pulls the narrative together in lieu of the judgemental narration of Brontë’s Nelly Dean. It is young Cathy, played by the beguiling Stephanie Hockley, who navigates the emotional landscape her mother couldn’t and turns the two family’s fortunes around. Perhaps it is the steady upbringing from her loving father, Edgar Linton, combined with a fierce will inherited from her mother that imbues her with these powers.

That this production of Wuthering Heights has prompted fresh perspectives on a 170-year-old text is credit both to the endlessly inspiring and complexly layered source material, and to Wise Children, which is proving reliable in creating original and groundbreaking new theatre. Emma Rice’s unorthodox vision pulses through every aspect of this brilliant production – from the quirky set to the earthy costume design, the expressive choreography and movement, and the live musical accompaniment that moves through folk to heavy rock while maintaining a visceral raw quality.

These elements combine to create a perfect stormy depiction of a unique and inspiring part of the North of England that has not only provided us with an invaluable literary inheritance, but that continues to move and inspire us.

Wuthering Heights, a co-production between Wise Children, The National Theatre, Bristol Old Vic and York Theatre Royal, is at the Lowry, Salford until 7 May, then in Brighton and Edinburgh

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