There can be little sympathy for any theatre-goers expecting a traditional retelling of Wuthering Heights in this new version at the National Theatre. Emma Rice is the controversial director who proved too ‘out there’ for Shakespeare’s Globe, her tenure as artistic director cut short after a backlash by the theatre’s more conservative members, who weren’t ready for her punk aesthetic and modern approach.
And while the red braces and Dr Martens from the posters are replaced by period costume, there’s no mistaking the punk sensibility that runs through this Wuthering Heights.
It would be better described as a reaction to, or perhaps a riff on, the novel than a faithful recreation; it’s part musical, part Greek tragedy and 100 per cent love letter to Emily Brontë. There’s even a fleeting framing device that suggests the action may be taking place in the imagination of a reader. Books are a frequent motif, often appearing as fluttering birds, and a neat cursive occasionally replaces the ominous clouds projected behind the stage.
The production is suffused with the impish humour and organised chaos that typifies Rice’s work (it’s been a while since I read it but I’m pretty sure the line “fuck the earth, fuck the stars” doesn’t appear in the original text).
The stormy opening scene features the impossibly bendy Sam Archer as Heathcliff’s new tenant Mr Lockwood, with the wind – soundtracked by screams from the chorus – blowing him head over heels. Elsewhere there are song and dance numbers, puppetry, live music, a grungy rock interlude, gymnastics, and plenty of physical comedy.
A meta commentary runs alongside the action, providing many of the laughs: “This is too difficult. Everyone is related,” says one exasperated character. “Nobody said this was going to be easy,” replies another.
The appearance of Catherine at the window, like many of the novel’s most dramatic moments, is played with something close to a wink – the brilliant Lucy McCormick smirks to the audience as she bashes at the threshold, inducing a panic attack in the terrified Mr Lockwood.
McCormick, a comedian and risque cabaret performer whose varied CV includes appearances in Alan Partridge and Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw, is magnetic. With her shock of blonde hair and smudge of dark eyeliner she haunts the stage long after her character has shuffled off this mortal coil, flitting seamlessly between melodrama, comedy and song (what a voice!).
The best lines, however, are reserved for Katy Owen, who plays both Isabella Linton and young Linton, Isabella and Heathcliff’s sickly son. She plays the latter as a grotesque inversion of Heathcliff’s cruel masculinity, a simpering twerp dressed in a giant bow who spouts lines including: “I like to slide down the bannister because it tickles my tuppence.”
‘The moors as a character in Wuthering Heights’ has been the topic of many an undergraduate essay but here The Moors become a literal, anthropomorphic presence. Narrator Nelly Dean is replaced by a woman wearing a crown of twigs (Nandi Bhebhi – another amazing voice), who recounts the dramas of the past from the point of view of the foreboding landscape.
Perhaps towing closest to the novel is Heathcliff himself, played with menacing efficiency by Ash Hunter. It’s a tough part to get right, but he captures not only the terrible brutality of his character – ‘toxic masculinity’ to use the modern parlance – but also his wounded nature. Rice writes in her programme notes that she was partly inspired to create the adaptation after drawing parallels between modern migrants and Heathcliff’s ambiguous heritage, which is a prominent strand throughout.
While her Wuthering Heights is deeply strange, Rice’s adoration for Brontë’s novel is never eclipsed by her outre directorial choices. Rice says she’s been obsessed with the book since childhood – there are even fan poems written by her in the programme notes – and it shows. An adaptation a lifetime in the making, it doesn’t disappoint.