Mention Wuthering Heights and most people's thoughts turn to rugged passion amid brutal windswept moors. Not themes you would necessarily associate with the purity of ballet, but this hasn't deterred Artistic Director David Nixon from turning Emily Brontë's novel into his first new work for the Northern Ballet Theatre.
Wuthering Heights is a moving tale of jealousy, revenge and tragic love. A young Cathy and brother Hindley are waiting at home for their father, when he unexpectedly brings home a gypsy child. While her brother regards the boy with dismay, Cathy is fascinated by the new family addition.
As they grow older, a strong bond grows between Cathy and Heathcliff, who spend much time together on the desolate hills surrounding their home at Wuthering Heights. Escaping to the moors to find solace from Hindley, who has become master of the estate following his father's death, Cathy and Heathcliff stumble across a party being held on the Linton family's estate. It is here Cathy encounters Edgar, who falls in love with her, and the first seeds of tragedy are sown.
As Heathcliff, Jonathan Ollivier is certainly bold, passionate and strong in his movement and expression, but lacks the wild edge the part truly demands. Opposite him, Charlotte Talbot is delightful as Cathy, infusing the production with classical romance. It's just a shame Nixon and theatrical director Patricia Doyle have had a brainstorm and decided to introduce a riding crop. Characters whacking each other in slapstick fashion is bad enough, but Heathcliff's crude prodding and poking must have the poor author turning in her grave.
Purely in terms of balletic skills, [Desiré Samaai] is mesmeric as Isabella. Despite her character's minor role, Samaai steals scenes with her grace and poise. As Edgar, Hironao Takahashi is regal and refined, and makes an excellent love rival for the raggedy Heathcliff.
Pitched at the perfect length, this production glides along smoothly at all times, accompanied by [Claude-Michel Schönberg]'s excellent score. Despite the occasional brassy blare reminiscent of the composer's other smash hits (Les Miserables, Miss Saigon, Martin Guerre), the music achieves the rare trick of being both subtle and memorable. It's also nice to see the stage packed with bodies for several thrilling dance sequences, very much in the style of other Schönberg-inspired musicals.
For the most part, Ali Allen's set is what you might expect; foreboding backdrops and howling winds, accompanied by a lonely tree. This said, she does an admirable job transforming the stage into the Linton's warm and palatial home.
Wuthering Heights is the NBT doing what the NBT does best - making ballet more accessible thanks to a powerful shot of theatre. Traditionalists may sniff, but this brave production deserves every bit of box office success that comes its way.
- Alex Waddington (reviewed at The Alhambra Theatre, Bradford)