Wuthering Heights – The Lowry

Wuthering Heights is a literary classic harking back to the Romantic period in the nineteenth century. It has since become embedded into British culture and most people end up having to study it at some point. This was reflected by the number of school classes and young adults in the audience watching The Lowry’s sold out performance of Wise Children’s stage adaptation of Emily Brontë’s epic tale of romance, revenge, jealousy, and death.

The novel has been adapted for screen and stage so many times, but sadly, they never seem to match the poetic beauty of the original text. Adapted and directed by Emma Rice, this version adds musical numbers and dance into the mix, creating an eclectic Wuthering Heights that will almost certainly divide the opinions of purists.

Wise Children's Wuthering Heights The Lowry Manchester Theatre Review. Liam Tamne's Heathcliff kisses Lucy McCormick's Cathy.
Liam Tamne’s Heathcliff kisses Lucy McCormick’s Cathy. Picture Credit – Steve Tanner.

I’m going to be honest, from the moment Emma Rice’s Wuthering Heights started, I knew that I was going to hate it. It begins with Lockwood (Sam Archer), wearing a deerstalker and trenchcoat, being farcically blown across the Yorkshire Moors. The opening scene feels more like a comedic version of Sherlock Holmes’ The Hound of the Baskervilles. Instantaneously, the moody, dark, brooding atmosphere of the Yorkshire Moors, which makes Brontë’s novel so beautifully haunting, is abandoned in favour of slapstick comedy.

This melodramatic approach is recurrent throughout the play, as Cathy’s ‘Let me in!‘ haunting is even more ridiculously over-played than Kate Bush’s music video, resulting in the scene completely losing its tragic impact. Honestly, by this point, I wanted the evening to end. But with the first act being 95 minutes, and the second being 65 minutes, Wuthering Heights dragged out my suffering for as long as possible, as I watched one of my favourite novels being butchered in this way.

The book’s pivotal character, Nelly Dean, is chopped, with a personification of the moor narrating events instead. Headed by Nandi Bhebe, the actors representing the moor act like a Greek Chorus and provide a nice folk-like musical accompaniment to the drama. It’s a good concept in principle, but things get confusing when people in the past interact with Bhebe’s character, who should be retrospectively telling the story. This results in the narrative function of ‘the moor’ becoming blurred as she dresses Heathcliff (Liam Tamne) in smart clothes, interferes in events and even gets smacked in the face by Cathy. It makes no sense!

Wise Children's Wuthering Heights The Lowry Manchester Theatre Review. Nandi Bhebe is the moor.
Nandi Bhebe (centre) is the personified moor. Picture Credit – Steve Tanner.

The deaths of many characters are played for laughs, which feels like poor judgement from Emma Rice, particularly after a pandemic where over a hundred thousand people died. But worst of all, Heathcliff’s shocking, cruel mistreatment of characters such as Isabella Linton and Little Linton (both played by Katy Owen) is brushed aside and trivialised. Rice writes both of these characters to be so incredibly irritating that their deaths seem like a blessed relief. Anything is better than listening to Linton’s intolerably whining voice or watching Isabella constantly leap into the air like a gazelle. Any sympathy that you should have for these victims of Heathcliff’s vengeance is erased quicker than the writing on the chalkboards that are insensitively paraded every time a character dies.

As I mentioned earlier, Wuthering Heights has numerous musical numbers, with on stage musicians also accompanying the dialogue during the rest of the story, with acoustic melodies. At times, it creates a nice, rustic atmosphere, but at other times, the music overpowers the actors’ dialogue. Most notably Cathy’s iconic, powerful declaration that ‘I am Heathcliff! Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same’ is drowned out.

Many of Rice’s songs also fail to add anything to the story. For example, Lucy McCormick’s Cathy screams “Fuck the world!” and other profanities into a microphone, with her hair being blown by a wind machine, in a punk-rock song that occurs out of nowhere. It could be seen as an act of rebellion, but it leads to nothing, as she quietly and conventionally gets married a few seconds later.

Wise Children's Wuthering Heights The Lowry Manchester Theatre Review. Cathy screams into a microphone.
“Fuck the world!”. Cathy turns into a punk rocker. Picture Credit – Steve Tanner.

When Wuthering Heights focuses on the beautiful, profound, timeless story of Brontë’s novel, it does work. Cathy’s visceral descent into madness is one of these rare moments. McCormick’s wide eyes stare into the distance, and her mannerisms are erratic, depicting a madness that is disturbing.

But sadly, Emma Rice’s adaptation desecrates the book, by adding gratuitous swearing and crude, awful dialogue about genital rashes, tiny testicles, or even a character who gets sexual pleasure from sliding down the bannister in the house, which “tickles my tuppence“. To see one of the greatest works of literature treated in this way made me cringe.

Thankfully Liam Tamne‘s solid performance as Heathcliff saved me from utter despair. Tamne’s Heathcliff’s romance with Cathy is passionate, and hatred burns throughout his performance after her death. But once again, Emma Rice pushes it too far, with an act of necrophilia.

Emily Bronte will be turning in her grave!

★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

As a footnote – I finally want to mention that Wuthering Heights only has a digital programme available for this tour. It’s free and you scan a QR code. I know that the British Theatre Guide have already mentioned how faffy this is in their review of Wuthering Heights. But I just want to add that I fervently oppose the idea that if an audience member just wanted to look at the cast list, that they are forced to give their personal details (Name, postcode, email address), create a password, and sign up to a newsletter. You can opt out of the newsletter at a later time, but it sets a dangerous precedent.

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