Emily Brontë’s one and only novel Wuthering Heights is much more densely plotted and longer than many people realise. This is largely down to the number of adaptations which have omitted much of the later stages of the plotline to concentrate solely on the doomed relationship of Heathcliff and Cathy – Kate Bush has a lot to answer for as well. There’s no such short changing in Emma Rice’s adaptation for Wise Children which toured the country and is now available on line through Sky Arts/Now TV after being filmed at Bristol Old Vic. Indeed, you might find yourself wishing that some liberties with the text had been taken as this family based saga clocks in at getting on for three hours. If you’re a completist, an Emma Rice devotee or simply a big fan of the original though, you’ll be lapping it up.
What adapter/director Rice has absolutely captured is the wild and elemental nature of the original with a backdrop of scudding clouds and frequent flights of silhouetted birds; the latter is cleverly echoed on stage by books on poles which the actors flap and swoop around each other. Any pretty-pretty Victoriana is ditched in favour of a rough and ready grubby earthiness fully exemplified by making the wild and windy moorland a character in its own right. Principally played by Nandi Bhebhe but supplemented by the entire cast, The Moor tells its own story and acts as narrator to proceedings – the character of Nelly Dean has been unceremoniously dumped but that’s no great loss in my opinion.
Central figures Cathy and Heathcliff exude a primitive passion which they can barely control and which ultimately overwhelms them. Ash Hunter’s brooding presence pervades whenever he is on stage and his essential cruelty makes complete sense given the cultural sensibilities which are highlighted. Everyone has their own ideas of how Heathcliff should be played and Hunter’s depiction is one of the best. He is matched by Lucy McCormick’s Cathy who has a rock chick vibe especially when she belts out one of several manic musical numbers. By the time we reach her death scene she is in full nervous breakdown mode so a return as a wailing ghost makes complete sense. The rest of the ensemble are terrific, notably Witney White as Cathy (Mark 2) and Tama Phethean as Hindley/Hareton. Towering above them all (though not literally) is long time Rice collaborator Katy Owen who makes an incredibly rich pairing of the ninnyish Isabella and the permanently sickly, terminally ill young Linton.
The production emphasises the multiple deaths (and helps the viewer keep track of who is who and how they are related) through judicious use of chalkboards on which names are inscribed. This is a great idea as the Wuthering Heights family tree is notoriously tricky to divine. And there are plenty of other familiar Rice tropes on display such as the use of puppetry and simple scenery which is muti purposed to keep the director’s many advocates happy. There is excellent support on the technical side from lighting designer Jai Morjaria and the sound/video work of Simon Baker which helps to create a strong sense of atmosphere and take us out of the realms of typical costume drama. This is a novel where the narrative is ideally suited to Rice’s theatrical style and it is only surprising that it has taken so long for this adaptation to surface as part of her work. My only caveat is that it simply too long but maybe that’s an effect of seeing it on screen rather than in a live environment where the whole thing would probably have seemed more immersive.