Directed by Bryony Shanahan
Written by Andy Sheridan
ROYAL EXCHANGE THEATRE
This new adaptation of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights creates an exciting theatrical opportunity to explore the moors and their doomed inhabitants in the round of the Royal Exchange. Would Director Bryony Shanahan and writer Andy Sheridan perhaps place a modern day damaged and doomed Heathcliff and Cathy up on Saddleworth Moors with a despairing school attendance officer? Might they be recognised as probably suffering from impulse control disorder, ADHD, Borderline Personality Disorder and possibly anorexia? This fresh take instead seeks to move between mining a comedic vein that borders into laugh out loud farce while equally revering the beauty of Emily’s poetry. Sadly the real emotional depth in this production is only really there when it glories in showcasing Bronte’s poetry with a dreamy soundscape by Alexandra Faye Braithwaite. The end result is disjointed in terms of character development so it feels impossible to believe in the innate complexity of these wild, unbridled creatures of nature and their tumultuous relationship.
There is a serious issue with the chemistry between Rakhee Sharma as Cathy and Alex Austin as Heathcliff. It is actually the mood established by the lighting and the musical accompaniment that drives and creates emotional depth and potency in this relationship. The rest is simply swagger, spits and hisses punctuated by glib swearing or beautiful and passionate speeches spoken eloquently but petulantly when they need to resonate with raw passion. There is a wonderful gawky awkwardness that Alex Austin brings to the young Heathcliff but too often his characterisation slips into glib gangster menace rather than wild, embittered and wounded soul. Sharma as Cathy is wild and feisty but often too shouty and pouty to truly convey the raw unfettered soul that Emily Bronte envisaged. I wanted to revel in her complexity but found myself just wishing she would calm down and not spoil the glorious sound of musicians Becky Wilkie and Sophie Galpin. At key moments my eyes were drawn to the impassioned face of Wilkie and sadly not that of Rakhee Sharma. David Crellin as Earnshaw brings warmth and humanity with a performance that is rich and complex.
In her first production as Co- Artistic Director at the Royal Exchange Bryony Shanahan brings a lot of energy and movement to the production that at times creates a real sense of the wild moors and their freedom from the constraints of societal norms as the characters run free. There is a genuine pathos as Cathy struggles with letting go of childhood freedoms to be a mother and a wife. Creating magic and mayhem this is a Cathy that is perhaps closer to the weird sisters in the recent Macbeth at the Royal Exchange than the weird sisters at Haworth Parsonage. The casual cruelty shown by all the main protagonists is brutal and brutish, and perhaps this explains the decision to play so many key scenes for laughs. Moments such as when Heathcliff and Cathy are once more together on the moors struggle with the emotional depth of a key scene being undercut by Isabella raising laughs as she comically clambering over the rocky landscape. The humour does offset the darkness but sometimes this is at the expense of driving the plot forward in a believable manner.
The use of light shards works really well and designer Zoe Spurr has created a really painterly effect on mood and landscape. The set design is however more problematic with its messy blend of heath and hearth. The barren tree is beautiful as is the design allowing characters to depart this world or spy on others. The floor space however resembles a post apocalyptic golf course and has a playmobil feel rather than a naturalistic landscape. Overall this production may be as divisive in its execution and reception as the original book was when first received by its readers!
Images by Helen Murray