Review: Emma Rice’s Wuthering Heights
Emma Rice’s production of Wuthering Heights is essentially Sesame Street set on a brooding moor, complete with puppets, slapstick and songs. The complex cast of characters is flattened into pantomime stereotypes– Heathcliff reduced to vengeful villain, Linton a good-natured cuckold and Cathy a destructive manic wild woman. Punctuated by comic moments it’s entertaining enough, though it bears little resemblance to Emily Brontë’s exquisite portrait of sadism and obsessive love.
The production romps along with tightly choreographed dance routines which allow the cast to show off their considerable physical skills. The songs are neither interesting nor intrusive, essentially inoffensive lift music with lyrics to assist plot development. An exception is a grungy number by Cathy, which serves to express her character’s emotions (rather than the more usual theatrical device known as “acting”).
Distracting puppets, substitutes for Heathcliff’s dogs and various characters as children, seem designed to prompt the audience to think ‘how creative’ rather than to be subtle evocations which seamlessly support the narrative. At intervals a of flock of books on sticks are paraded across the stage, with pages flapping- presumably a reminder that the play is (very) loosely based upon a book.
The overall feel of the play is as if it were produced by someone scared of inciting emotion; tension is vented through humour before any scene can move towards its zenith. As Heathcliff’s foppish son Linton is convulsing on his death bed, the actor seems unable to resist performing for laughs. Indeed, Katy Owen (Linton) is clearly a talented comic actor, but why the role she plays was rewritten as a humorous one is unclear.
Clumsy moments of exposition trip-up the flow. With the gracelessness of poorly aged Jacobian comedy, leaden humorous intrusions from the doctor holding-up chalk boards with the names of the newly deceased characters are helpfully designed to keep the hard-of-thinking in the loop. Perhaps such recaps are a concession to those lulled into a stupor by the bland soundtrack.
Ultimately, this mediocre play tries and fails to transform a masterpiece of literature into a musical. There are any number of classic novels that could lend themselves to comic reimaginings, Wuthering Heights is not one of them. Exposing the brooding moor to the stage lighting was never going to be easy, leaving the auditorium I was left with one question “why?”