Wuthering Heights – Royal Exchange Theatre

Emily Brontë‘s Wuthering Heights has long been considered a Gothic masterpiece; a romantic love story that transcends time. However, it is a novel that I have always struggled with. Unlike many others, I find it difficult to detect much romance in the book. I certainly don’t identify Heathcliff as a tragic, romantic hero.

Personally, Heathcliff and Cathy have a twisted, unhealthy, obsessive relationship, which is centred around possessing and controlling each other. When Cathy vehemently declares “I am Heathcliff”, alarm bells are raised. This is not a romantic relationship. It’s much more multi-faceted than that.

Wuthering Heights Royal Exchange Manchester Andrew Sherdian Emily Bronte Bryony Shanahan Manchester Theatre Review
Heathcliff (Alex Austin) and Cathy (Rakhee Sharma). Picture Credit – Helen Murray.

Andrew Sheridan‘s adaptation strips away Lockwood’s narration, truncating events to focus entirely on Heathcliff’s ill-fated relationship with Cathy. Removing the older, remorseful Heathcliff, this version concentrates on the young, cruel, self-centred, hateful characters that inhabit Brontë’s novel, exploring the origins behind their destructive natures.

The script is given an update for a modern audience, with plenty of swearing added into the mix, but Brontë’s poetry is still the heart and soul of this production. Sheridan’s Wuthering Heights beautifully captures the raw emotions of the book, particularly with Cathy and Heathcliff’s profound, frankly disturbing discussions about cuckoos, death, and swimming in each other’s blood.

If you’re looking for a lovely, beautiful romance, you’ll be sorely disappointed. Sheridan’s adaptation is much more than that. It’s a riveting character study in torturous obsession and unhealthy infatuation.

Wuthering Heights Royal Exchange Manchester Andrew Sherdian Emily Bronte Bryony Shanahan Manchester Theatre Review
Heathcliff (Alex Austin) and Cathy (Rakhee Sharma). Picture Credit – Helen Murray.

Rakhee Sharma plays Cathy with great intensity, alongside a wild, brooding Alex Austin. The pair have a magnetic chemistry together. Even when there is physical distance between Cathy and Heathcliff, there is a palpable connection, as both actors fix their gaze on each other.

As Heathcliff, Alex Austin is no romantic hero. He begins Wuthering Heights as an untamed, primitive savage, covered in dirt, and snarling. Austin’s mannerisms are more animal than human. Initially rejected, it is his friendship with Cathy that supposedly tames Heathcliff’s nature. However, being outcast, embarrassed, and bullied by Hindley, Austin’s Heathcliff also flies into violent fits of rage.

In the second act, Heathcliff returns as an educated, wealthy man, but one who is bitter and vengeful. Although Austin manages this transformation well, at times he carries himself with a gangster’s swagger, and the play’s humour sometimes undermines the vile cruelty of his scheming. His spiteful romance with Isabella is portrayed as comedic, rather than the heartless, deceptive marriage of entrapment in Brontë’s novel.

Wuthering Heights Royal Exchange Manchester Andrew Sherdian Emily Bronte Bryony Shanahan Manchester Theatre Review
Rakhee Sharma as Cathy. Picture Credit – Helen Murray.

Rakhee Sharma brilliantly captures Cathy’s petulant, childish nature whilst growing up. Throughout the first half, Sharma’s Cathy seems to be a spoiled brat, and her time spent with the Lintons simply propels this notion. This is exactly how I pictured Cathy when I read the novel.

What is most impressive about Sharma’s performance is her devastating physical, and mental decline in health in the play’s climax. It becomes genuinely uncomfortable to witness her descent into madness during pregnancy. Her horrifying screams for Heathcliff reverberate through the Royal Exchange. It is a superb performance that stunned me into shocked silence.

Andrew Sheridan‘s masterstroke as a playwright is to fully develop Hindley’s character. Often sidelined in film, Hindley’s actions crucially explain why the characters turn out the way they do. His father’s harsh favouritism towards Heathcliff shows the origins behind Hindley’s bitter resentment of him. This provides the reason why Heathcliff is beaten and outcast, and exposes the source of his inner malice and loathing towards Hindley.

Gurjeet Singh is phenomenal in this role. I am already a huge admirer of Singh, as he is a fantastic actor. However, I have only ever seen him play nice characters, such as in Hobson’s Choice and The Manchester Project at Christmas. His transformation into a vile, violent malcontent is quite frankly terrifying. As Hindley, the sheer hatred, fury, and anger he renders through his performance is remarkable, displaying his incredible dexterity as an actor.

Wuthering Heights Royal Exchange Manchester Andrew Sherdian Emily Bronte Bryony Shanahan Manchester Theatre Review
Musicians Sophie Galpin and Beckie Wilkie. Picture Credit – Helen Murray.

The part I anticipated most about Wuthering Heights is its musical composition, played live on stage by the supremely talented Sophie Galpin and Becky Wilkie. It certainly didn’t disappoint. Galpin playing the electric guitar lends the score a contemporary, grunge-rock, almost gig-like quality. When blended with Beckie Wilkie’s haunting, soaring vocals, the production gains an eerie atmosphere, which perfectly matches Brontë’s novel.

Sadly, Alexander Faye Braithwaite‘s gorgeous musical score is criminally underused in the first half of the play. However, the second half is stunning, particularly when Becky Wilkie’s sustained percussive drumbeat replicates Cathy’s beating heart. It is foreboding, intense, and brilliantly builds dramatic tension.

In contrast to the sublime, atmospheric music, Cécile Trémolières’ unambitious set design is wholly disappointing. A barren tree dominates the set, and its branches cast some nice shadows across the stage. However, every time a character dies, the actor quite literally ascends to heaven by climbing the tree. It seems a little clichéd.

Sparse sprigs of grass sprout from a barren, bare stage. This looks like the last day of a music festival, rather than the grassy, mossy wilderness of the moors. With no earth on the stage’s surface to soak it up, the use of rain also caused several people to slip and fall.

The weather and the bleak conditions of Wuthering Heights are critical to the novel, as it beautifully reflects the inner turmoil of the characters that dwell there. Other than a little fog, this was entirely absent in this production. It just seems like a huge, missed opportunity, particularly when Storm Ciara and Storm Dennis have been battering Manchester for days. Conditions in the city centre were considerably worse than the supposed wily, windy moors.

Wuthering Heights is not perfect. Its second half is much stronger than the first, which feels too long. Penned by Andrew Sheridan, I honestly expected it to be an even more radical adaptation. But as a whole, this play has a fantastic score, and an outstanding cast who beautifully capture the essence of Bronte’s novel; the torturous obsession between two hateful characters.

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

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