Andrew Sheridan's adaptation of Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights is a powerful re-imagination, strongly performed at the Royal Exchange, writes Martin Hall
The adaptation of Emily Brontë’s 1847 novel Wuthering Heights, currently playing at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre, is billed as ‘a new version by Andrew Sheridan’. The original tells the story of Heathcliff, a mysterious gypsy-like boy, an outsider who is adopted into the Earnshaw family, and then runs away when Cathy Earnshaw, his foster sister, with whom he has fallen in love, decides to marry another. He returns later, rich and educated, and sets about gaining his revenge on the two families that he believed ruined his life.
Those expecting either the gothic qualities of the novel, the romance of William Wyler’s 1939 film, or the otherworldliness of Andrea Arnold’s 2011 version, would be well-advised similarly, to treat this production as a re-imagining rather than a straight adaptation.
The performance begins with music from Sophie Galpin and Becky Wilkie, who are present throughout at the edge of the space dressed in period costume under an overhanging tree. Some moments later, the audience sees Mr Earnshaw (David Crellin) encountering a wild boy on the streets of Liverpool, who he names Heathcliff (Alex Austin) and takes home to the Yorkshire Moors. Despite his insistence that his children, Cathy (Rakhee Sharma) and Hindley (Gurjeet Singh), treat the foundling as an equal sibling, both are initially dismissive of him. However, he and Cathy become close and soon spend their time out on the Moors. Hindley thus begins to hate him as he sees the boy as having supplanted him in the eyes of his father and sister. The set contains raised areas, rocks, and foliage representing the heather and other wild flora and fauna of the Moors. The theatre space is in the round, and much is made of the circularity that brings, with Heathcliff often running around the edge, sometimes with wild abandon and love; at other times, enraged by Cathy’s confusion and choices, or indeed, lack of them.
The round also adds to the sense of an emotional circle that cannot be broken.
Unlike the film adaptations referred to above, Sheridan and director Bryony Shanahan’s version includes the second half of the novel, where we see Heathcliff returned from his time away, now a wealthy gentlemen, bent on revenge against both Hindley for his cruelty, and Edgar Linton (Dean Fagan) for marrying Cathy, the event that caused his leaving. Moreover, the intergenerational cruelty and trauma provoked by Cathy and Heathcliff’s amour fou is presented, in condensed fashion, with the play ending with Edgar and Cathy’s daughter Cathy Linton (Raya Dasgupta) and Hindley’s son, Hareton Earnshaw (Lewis Freeman), recreating and echoing the love of Cathy and Heathcliff.
The performances are strong throughout, with particular emphasis given to Cathy’s strength (and what reduces it), and the relative weakness of the men. Nelly (Samantha Power), Mr Earnshaw’s servant, and the narrator of the novel, is also a powerful character. Cathy weakens, both intellectually and physically, once she takes on the role of lady, and wife. Similarly, Heathcliff becomes crueller once he returns from London a wealthy gentleman.
However, Edgar’s sister and Heathcliff’s later lover, Isabella (Rhiannon Clements - who also plays Frances, Hindley’s wife), becomes cast adrift once she leaves the safety of the landed gentry to take up with Heathcliff. In that sense, what we are presented with is what happens when a person is removed from their station, regardless of what it was. Still, without it being explicit, the play does draw attention to the debilitating effect of money and status upon the natural world represented by the Moors and young love.
What is less evident is the racial element that Arnold’s 2011 film brought out, which added to the debate about Heathcliff’s ethnicity, based upon various lines in the novel and Liverpool being a centre of the slave trade. Brontë refers to Heathcliff as a ‘dark-skinned gypsy’ and Nelly at various times refers to him as black. However, the play presents him as a white Londoner, and indeed his whiteness is emphasised by both Cathy and Hindley being played by British Asian actors. While the performance never refers to their ethnicity, the casting leaves it open for the audience to take from it what they will.
The music is very powerful throughout, and Shanahan and Alexandra Faye Braithwaite, the sound designer and composer, refer in the programme to the musicians as standing in for Emily Brontë. The music, in that sense, presents another narrational voice for the audience, who are also treated to Brontë’s poetry, which often functions as a form of soliloquy for Cathy, and therefore a very direct way for her to express the depth of her emotions.
At times, both musicians play guitar, while Wilkie also plays drums and a harp. Close harmonies are the main driving force of the soundscape and the music adds light and shade throughout.
What might be more of a surprise is the performance’s use of humour, mostly in the first half. While it is certainly not unlikely that Cathy and Heathcliff would have laughed and joked, it did feel at times that it was a little forced, and perhaps didn’t add a great deal to the power of the play.
It is power that is the principal achievement of the adaptation. Particular scenes are kinetic in their effect, and both Austin and Sharma are visceral in their movement and speech, especially in the second half, where the energy increases and darkens, and shade mostly overcomes light, as it should, in what is after all a tragic love story.
Wuthering Heights - a new version by Andrew Sheridan
Royal Exchange Theatre, St Ann's Square, Manchester, M2 7DH
Friday 7 February to Saturday 7 March 2020
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