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Wuthering Heights (Birmingham & tour)

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars
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Emily Bronte\'s Wuthering Heights is, of course, a behemoth of canonical English literature. To attempt to adapt this epic tome into a two-hour performance is ambitious enterprise, to say the least - if not an entirely misguided one. Not to be deterred, however, April De Angelis and the Birmingham Repertory Company have rolled their sleeves up and taken it on. Sadly, however, they\'ve not really come out on top.

The simple fact is that some things just don\'t translate well to stage. Bronte\'s perennial love story of Heathcliff and Cathy up on the wild Yorkshire moors is rich, complex and epic, but when condensed into 2 hours just seems a little bit baffling and occasionally ridiculous. There is only so much wailing and collapsing that you can take without either wanting to cry or laugh yourself. Unfortunately, the audience seemed to plump for the latter; often at moments of high drama; which, presumably were not intended to be quite so amusing.

This adaptation lacks the psychological depth and complexity of the novel; so you consequently feel like you\'re just watching a handful of histrionic Northern sociopaths systematically wailing, fighting, collapsing and then dying (usually somewhat inexplicably: from standing on a table? From wearing a white nightie? From sitting on a sofa too long?) Their behaviour frequently just comes across as odd and extreme and it becomes difficult to relate to or engage with them.

The cast themselves gave reasonable performances considering the melodramatic nature of the play and the somewhat unimaginative direction. A highlight is Susannah York’s Nelly Dean; on-stage throughout as a plausible, likeable and sympathetic presence. Simon Coates as Lockwood also suffers less from melodramatic direction and provides some good comedy value.

Other positives are the set and lighting design; from Mike Britton and Chris Davey, respectively. With a difficult remit of providing a sense of the two entirely different households huddled against the dramatic backdrop of the Yorkshire moors; some ingenuity has gone into the simple, dark, heavy walls of the set; with a swirling projected sky overhead and a whistling wind. There is some clever stagecraft too; with some well-thought-out, symbolic movement of both props and people.

It goes to show that the elements of this production that work are the elements in which a degree of ingenuity have been applied and a keen understanding of the difference between book and stage. If you’re going to tackle something as immense as Wuthering Heights, you’re going to have to do something really different with it, rather than De Angelis’ two-hour, whistle-stop tour of the epic. The result, sadly, is a bit nonsensical, a bit farcical and a bit abrupt.

- Fiona Handscomb


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