It’s a cold, dark night on the moors in director, Bryony Shanahan’s new production of Wuthering Heights at The Royal Exchange.
Adapting Emily Brontë’s sweeping 19th century novel for the stage is always ambitious, not only because of the scale of the story but because at its centre is one of the most famous fictional couples of all time. Here, Andrew Sheridan’s new version keeps the action tight by focusing on Cathy and Heathcliff’s tumultuous relationship.
When we first meet the pair as children, the bleak moorland is their playground, where they run free, howling like animals, as extreme and raw as the landscape, and as wild as the wind. In this harsh environment, cruelty and abuse is never far away. In one scene Cathy’s brother, Hindley, jealous of his father’s attention on Heathcliff, snatches a baby fox from its dead mother’s womb before crushing its last breath under a violent stamp. Such disregard for young life is a disturbing theme, the chilling effect of which is felt throughout the play.
Here Cécile Trémolières’ staging, with constant swirling mist, creates a supernatural ghostly feel. It gives a sense we are watching ghostly versions of the character’s pasts in the adults they now are. Watching adults play children can sometimes be a little irritating, but here it gives a powerful sense of the juvenile nature of Cathy and Heathcliff’s suffocating love. Their dark talk of death and swimming in each other’s blood signals an intense, obsessive bond, destined to burn itself out or else the people it consumes.
The production is designed for us to get swept up in the headiness of it all, with integration of a live music soundtrack, as musicians, Becky Wilkie and Sophie Galpin whipping up emotion playing an original and often haunting score from Alexander Faye Braithwaite.
The costumes and drama keep it a period piece, but Sheridan updates the language with a spattering of expletives that are probably necessary for a 21st century audience to grasp the guttural brutality, but still feel a little out of place.
Act II gets darker following the couple’s separation, opening onto an even bleaker landscape where even the odd clumps of heather have disappeared. Alex Austin’s Heathcliff is more preening than brooding and Rakhee Sharma’s Cathy more waspish than feisty. Their love plays out as madness and obsession with a surprising lack of passion and desire. And although both actors give strong, energised performances, the direction to push their characters to self-absorbed extremes, weakens the emotional connection from the audience to care about what happens to them.
That said, overall it is an absorbing piece which makes dynamic use of the Exchange’s intimate space. It is a bold move to present such a set of dislikeable figures without compromise, and it won’t be to everyone’s taste. But as Shanahan’s first production for the Exchange in her role as artistic co-director, the ambition of it is an exciting sign of what’s to come.★ ★ ★ ★
Wuthering Heights is at The Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester from 7 February to 7 March 2020.