Wuthering Heights review – Emma Rice tackles Emily Brontë in romantic ride
The show has kickstarted a tour, which continues into next year
Wild passion, mankind's link to the elemental, love that transcends life and death and moves beyond the grave. If a project would seem to fit any director, Emily Brontë's 1847 melodramatic love story Wuthering Heights, directed by Emma Rice for Wise Children would seem to be a perfect fit. Yet like Rebecca, a previous (though chillier in tone) tale, something doesn't quite take off in the telling.
It ticks off the classic Rice tropes that those of us who admire her have fallen for, puppetry, gender, and colour-blind casting, songs, some unexpected production choices. Yet it lacks the originality of her best works: the transcendence of A Midsummer Nights Dream, the unexpected chocolatey sweetness of Romantics Anonymous, the sheer love breaking beyond the buttoned-up society of Brief Encounter: here nothing takes you by surprise or throws a different perspective on the piece. Rice may be a victim of her success, doomed if she doesn't vault ever higher poles. For completists, it feels inessential. For those new to her work or wanting to watch a stage production that ticks off every narrative beat, this may read better.
What Rice does do very well is bring the elemental wildness of the novel to the stage. The love story of Heathcliff and Cathy, brought together by erotic force, broken apart by class and society is big on atmosphere and in act one particularly there are moments she is supported in this by Lucy McCormick's Cathy, bringing the wide-eyed edge of her Post Popular character to one of literature's most famous wild children. With her doe-eyes and unruly hair, she brings a sense of innocence and danger to all her stage work, and she plays it up to the hilt here, a girl lost in a world of love and eroticism slightly beyond her comprehension. When she grabs a microphone and wails like a banshee, wind machine throwing her hair back, we see the theatre that Rice at her best can produce. There just aren't enough of that here.
Brontë's novel is a tricky ask for actors, requiring them to age from childhood into middle age and adapt from fire to curdled middle-aged disappointment. Ash Hunter's Heathcliffe is thrilling in the first half, an orphan thrown into a class that he can't quite break into until spurned by love and family he returns a gentleman avenger. However, in the second half, he struggles to show the vulnerability beyond the ice-cold revenge, the man who "cares too much, and yet cares not at all." Whether it's Brontë's writing or the production as a whole, the second half of hauntings and a slight tinge of madness doesn't quite land.
Wise Children and Kneehigh veteran Katy Owen is a show-stealing delight, the way she shapes her vowels sending laughter ricocheting through the auditorium, her full-blooded commitment to everything she does drawing the eyes. There is also some sterling work from relative newcomer Tama Pheatan as a range of other men orbiting around the Yorkshire moors.
If it's not quite the full-blooded celebration we had been hoping for it was still joyful to be back at a packed Bristol Old Vic. As the starting point of a long time, expect it to sharpen and get tighter. By the time it hits the National, it may even be able to stand shoulder to shoulder with some of the hits.