Now With Added Spice: Wuthering Heights At National Theatre
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Whether you consider Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights to be the ultimate love story, a gothic tale of revenge or, as one Victorian critic put it, “a compound of vulgar depravity and unnatural horrors”, there’s no denying its power.
Emma Rice’s controversial reign at the Royal Shakespeare Company was all-too-brief; defenestrated but defiant, she left in 2018 to start up Wise Children, the production company behind this latest take on the English Lit perennial.
The bones of original plot are all here with music, circus and welcome dollops of humour thrown in to spice up the darkness of the original text. The characters are slightly different too: out go Nelly and Joseph and in comes a spry Nandi Bhebhe as an evocative personification of the Moor. Rice gives fans and critics the full Brontë, addressing the story’s complexity but also giving us the complete plot (and not the occasionally abbreviated version).
The music is probably the finest addition here. Backed by a live band, cast-sung numbers in a variety style of genres including hard rock and indie-pop are scattered across the near-three hour run time and energise some of the slower scenes, especially in the first half.
A close second is the humour which ranges from slapstick absurdities to quick fire so-wrong-yet-so-right verbal wit. Katy Owen in the minor roles of Isabella and Little Linton is sheer comic brilliance, unleashing one-liners like “Sometimes I like to slide down the banister because it tickles my tuppence".
With all the extras thrown in by Rice, something has to give. The characterisations here are shallower than in the book, lessening the dramatic weight of the romance between Heathcliff and Catherine (played solidly by Ash Hunter and Lucy McCormick) as well as the many, many deaths.
All in all, Rice’s interpretation is theatrical magic and a highly memorable live experience. Moreover, it pulls off the seemingly-impossible: outshining Kate Bush’s 1970s earworm as the best thing inspired by this novel.
Wuthering Heights at National Theatre, until 19 March 2022. Tickets from £20.
Last Updated 08 February 2022