Wuthering Heights – November 2008


By Emily Bronte, adapted by April de Angelis

Directed by Indhu Rubasingham

Chichester Festival Theatre

Wednesday 12th November 2008

Another night, another stage adaptation of a highly popular nineteenth century novel. This time I haven’t read the book, nor seen the movie. I have heard the song, and it’s probably impossible to avoid seeing clips from the film, usually in reference to Laurence Olivier’s acting skills, but this is as much of a blank slate as I can achieve for such a well known work.

The set couldn’t have been more different in look from last night’s (Far From The Madding Crowd) though in terms of multi-functionality they were close kin. A huge screen dominated the almost empty stage. It was tilted forward, and a picture of grubby clouds scudding across a blue sky was either projected onto it, or possibly painted on. It was hard to tell; in the occasional dull moment I tried to figure it out, but no luck. There was a table with bench and stools in a very rustic style to the back left of the acting space, and some chairs, a sofa and a bed were brought on a few times, but that was it. A lovely open space which the cast, assisted by some excellent lighting, turned into every location needed. Doors and windows were magicked up by that marvellous skill known as acting, and I found I preferred this approach tonight. No invisible sheep this time, but there were some dogs, and again acting and sound effects did the job very nicely.

I won’t go into detail on the story. I found it enjoyable in parts, mostly when Mr Lockwood made one of his entertaining comments, but I noticed there was a ridiculous amount of coughing in the audience at times, especially during the opening scenes after the interval. The actors could hardly get a line out without an accompanying hack. Funnily enough, though, the coughing seemed to die away when we got to the more interesting parts; whether I just stopped noticing it or the audience were too distracted to cough, I don’t know.

I enjoyed this production more than last night partly because there was a narrator, partly because there was a lot more humour, and partly because it was a much livelier performance, with a stronger cast giving it their all. Having a narrator, Nelly, played by Susannah York, made it all the more interesting as well as giving us the information we needed. Her voice wasn’t so powerful, so I did miss some of what she said, but I got the gist. The humour mainly came from Lockwood, a gentleman from London who had decided to bury himself in such an isolated place because he didn’t want to break another woman’s heart. Bless him, there was little chance of that, but we loved his vanity for all the fun it gave us. He opened the play by coming on to the stage, telling us of his situation, and knocking at the door of Wuthering Heights. The old chap who answered him spoke in such a strong accent (and probably in dialect as well), that we were all relieved when Lockwood couldn’t understand him either. We’d no sooner stopped laughing at that, than there was a small shower of snow, which only fell on Mr Lockwood. His comment, “It’s snowing”, was timed to comic perfection.

His presence throughout as the on-stage audience was also enjoyable. Nelly would tell him something, then be in a scene with the other characters, while Lockwood hovered like another, more substantial ghost, watching events unfold. He was handed things occasionally as well, suggesting a looseness to the boundary between ‘reality’ and fiction, the present and the past, which was entirely appropriate for this story.

The other performances were good too, especially Anthony Byrne as Heathcliff, so although I lost some of the dialogue due to the accent, like last night, I found it didn’t matter so much tonight as the characters’ thoughts and feelings came across regardless. The one plot detail I missed till later was that Heathcliff had been lending Hindley money which he couldn’t repay, and that was how Heathcliff ended up owning Wuthering Heights.

The play ended with Lockwood returning to visit the area again, so that we could find out what happened to them all. As he left, wondering about the dead folk, we saw the young Cathy and Heathcliff standing on a bench as we’d seen them earlier, when they were in the graveyard trying to raise spirits. This was the final image – the two of them silhouetted against the sky – and it was a fitting way to end this ghost story.

My only problem with this production was that I don’t find the characters of Heathcliff and Cathy particularly interesting. OK, she’s strong willed, and that may have been unusual in those days, though to judge by the number of strong women in the fiction and drama of the time (Hobson’s Choice, Hindle Wakes, etc.), you’d be forgiven for assuming the meek and mild woman devoted to her family was just a hopeful figment of male authors’ imaginations. Strong will on its own doesn’t do it for me, though, and Heathcliff seems to be such a nasty piece of work that I wouldn’t care to spend time with him, either. In fact, none of the characters were likeable, Lockwood excepted – even Nelly has her faults – and while I don’t mind that when the story is good, this one didn’t appeal to me, hence the dull parts. I am glad I’ve seen this, though, as it’s definitely a good production, and while I might consider reading the book sometime, it won’t be high on my list of priorities.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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