‘Wuthering Heights’ at the National Theatre: An Analysis

Emily Brontë’s ‘Wuthering Heights’ is famously hard to adapt, in part because of the non-linear narrative and the nature of the protagonists. While the book has legions of fans, including myself, it is not difficult to understand why people would find Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff irritating, and why readers would find the narrative, and therefore book in general, difficult to get into. I feel like this is where Emma Rice’s adaptation of ‘Wuthering Heights’ both succeeds and fails.

Beginning with the narrative, Rice makes a bold, but good move, in cutting out the character of Nelly Dean, and replacing her with the character of ‘the Moor,’ (Nandi Bhebhe) which can be compared to a Greek chorus. Through song and dance, ‘the Moor’ tells Lockwood the story of the Heights. Critics often refer to the landscape as its own character, and one that influences all other action within the novel. Catherine’s and Heathcliff’s own volatility and wide nature reflect the untameable landscape. Just like Catherine’s and Heathcliff’s own connection with each other, they also share an unbreakable relationship with the land, first living on it and then returning to it in death. Rice takes this idea and personifies the landscape, making their connection even more tangible and explicit. This move also cuts the character of Nelly Dean and the many problems that she brings, namely her unreliability as a narrator.

The play is also quite good as continually demonstrating the otherness of the inhabitants of ‘Wuthering Heights.’ At the beginning Lockwood is seen struggling to fight against the harsh winds of the Moors, in a somewhat comical scene… but more on comedy later. Heathcliff, Hareton and Cathy Linton enter the scene, and are unaffected by the harshness of the weather. Immediately, the audience is aware that these characters are of a different breed to Lockwood, quite literally, as children of the Moors and of Yorkshire in general. The ghost of Catherine Earnshaw is seen in the background, at times wailing and screaming to imitate the harshness of the weather. In death, been subsumed by the landscape, physically, as she is buried within the Earth, and spiritually as her actions and movements reflect the harsh landscape.

While these points were all good, I did however think that Catherine Earnshaw was a weak link in the production. Not because of Lucy McComick’s acting ability but probably how she was directed. The dialogue was pretty faithful to the book, and in the book Catherine can be pretty unlikeable. It is up to the director and actress to find the subtlety, nuance and vulnerability in Catherine, as without that, the audience will not root for her. There was much screaming and wailing, which dampened the parts of the book where Catherine is supposed to be screaming and wailing, namely when she is losing her grip on reality towards the end of her life. By having her scream and wail pretty much all of the time, the impact of her final moments is lost… as she has been behaving this way all throughout the play.

When Catherine returned from Thrushcross Grange after being bitten by Skulker, she was dressed in a huge gown with big, puffy sleeves. It was like something out of a pantomime, and the whole performance was very camp. She seemed like a petulant child imitating maturity, when in the book it is made clear that she has matured, and is not as fierce as she was before. It was just all a bit jarring – but camping up her sense of newfound propriety, it just felt quite fake and unconvincing. When in the book, it is convincing to a degree… as she does change, as reflected when she chastises Heathcliff for his appearance. What is good though, is how she observes all the action for the remainder of the play – Catherine is always present, just as she is always present for Heathcliff.

Heathcliff, played by Ash Hunter, has some interesting additions. A line that stood out was when he was referred to as ‘black granite.’ Rice chose to portray Heathcliff as black, picking up on some of the hints of the novel. The idea of granite also links to Heathcliff resembling the ‘eternal rocks beneath’ as Cathy explains in her ‘I am Heathcliff’ speech. We also get to see Heathcliff’s childhood briefly in Liverpool, in which he is played by a puppet. It’s another good way of othering him from the other cast members. Despite this, he remains fairly the same throughout the play. There is no kind of crescendo, to his rage and anger which was building throughout the first half. He broods constantly, but never quite flips. In cutting his death scene, and the days leading up to it robbed Hunter of some good material to work with, as Heathcliff becomes increasingly volatile, yet vulnerable in his last few days. I feel like in most adaptations, and the book, Heathcliff becomes crueller and more volatile as the story progresses… and I did not see much progression. Heathcliff always seemed quite broody and restrained.

The play did try to mark the difference between characters through the use of comedy. The Linton’s and Frances are key examples, the former being overly pompous and the latter appearing as a somewhat dim-witted. These characterisations were used well, especially as they were minor characters. Frances was not around for long, and her overly feminine nature was used to mark her difference between Catherine. Although initially comedic, Isabella is later seen as a sympathetic figure, after her marriage to Heathcliff.

It is Linton Heathcliff (Katy Owen) that commits the crime of becoming too pantomime and therefore irritating. In a play that is inherently dark, it is incredibly jarring to watch a character for the entirety of the second half trying, and in my opinion failing, to be funny, through the use of short, snappy lines and physicality. Linton is sympathetic in the book, he is not a clown, and he is treated horribly by Heathcliff and forced to subject Cathy Linton to imprisonment. In the play, he is an irritating whose death could not come soon enough… and even this death was incredibly dragged out. He dominates the shorter second half, to the point at which Heathcliff’s death scene is not even witnessed properly but mentioned in passing by the Moor. Linton’s role should have been dramatically reduced, and it is partly his fault that the second half lost its way.

The play also ends like a rom com, with Hareton appearing in a pinny having just baked a Victoria sponge. Yes, Cathy softens him, but again, this jump is so jarring… and unnecessary. There are petals falling on the stage, and singing, the focus totally shifting from the previous generation. The play is rife with tonal extremes creating an overall feeling of tonal imbalance.

The structuring of the play also does not help this, as at the beginning we are given a lot of exposition about how all the characters are related. Why? Show don’t tell. It surely would be easier for the audience to just watch than to have all characters thrown at them, especially characters who all share similar names. The first half is longer than the second and ends with Cathy’s death. Surely the natural break is when Cathy and Edgar get married, as three years pass? This would allow a bit of time to digest what we have seen – it would make the time lapse more visceral, instead it happens straight away. It also robs the second half of having a better structure, and having more plot points to work with, as all we get is Linton ranting for most of the time.

The play definitely has good moments, and really inventive ideas, but I feel like structure and some of the key characterisations let it down.

Thanks for reading!

Published by harpalkhambay

I am an English Literature and History graduate, and wanted a space to explore topics within those fields that interest me.

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