Reviews ManchesterNational Published 18 February 2020

Review: Wuthering Heights at Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester

7 February - 7 March

Mood piece: James Varney paints the violent, lustful landscape of Wuthering Heights in seven panels

James Varney
Rakhee Sharma and Alex Austin in Wuthering Heights at Royal Exchange, Manchester. Design, Cécile Trémolières; lighting design, Zoe Spurr. Photo: Helen Murray.

Rakhee Sharma and Alex Austin in Wuthering Heights at Royal Exchange, Manchester. Design, Cécile Trémolières; lighting design, Zoe Spurr. Photo: Helen Murray.

mood board for an illustrator: Wuthering Heights

General note: I think it is best to accompany Wuthering Heights with illustrations which are unliteral. The story is old enough that we can do what we like to it and we are always only adding to what exists of it in the cultural consciousness. The original text is much a ghost itself.

Consider the order below a suggestion. I supply titles and a handful of visual references. The illustrations should be unable to ruin any elements of plot whatever order they are in. My order is a journey of its own – but it is not the only journey.

1: Portrait of Heathcliff as a dying boy

[Ensayos, Goya] [butchered lamb] [Christina’s World, Andrew Wyeth]

Heathcliff is death. It is only his proximity to starvation and disease that awake Earnshaw’s pity. If he was healthy and well, if he was a grown scrote and fully-fledged member of the undeserving poor, if he wasn’t a child it would be more difficult for Earnshaw to find pity for him. His poverty runs so deep when he is discovered it divorces him from humanity. He can’t even speak. His wretchedness and youth conspire to turn him into something other than a child or an animal. He is a project. Earnshaw projects his Christian morality onto him, sees beneath his material conditions and hostility a pure soul worth salvaging. Cathy immediately as she sees him announces and names him: “He’s Heathcliff.”

Heathcliff is named after Cathy and Hindley’s dead sibling, Earnshaw’s dead son. A family without a mother finds glue in a boy close to death. They cast themselves onto him hoping to fix something. They make the error of misunderstanding that the poor cannot simply be moulded – they mould back. Their proximity to the means of production is not their weakness, but their opportunity.

Hindley struggles to contain his teenage lust for Heathcliff, jealous of the attention Cathy and he give each other. His fascination with the generative power that Heathcliff embodies is destructive because he cannot express it sexually. Before Heathcliff he cuts himself with a knife then tears a dead fox open, to find a litter still in its womb. He makes doubly sure one of them is dead, by stamping on it. Hindley’s capacity for reproduction is controlled and sane as a splatter of blood.

2: The Murderer

[Various, Ian Pollock] [Various, Georgia O’Keeffe]

When Hindley’s son is born, his wife Frances dies. He declares his son a murderer.

The role of the child is simple in Wuthering Heights; they slay their parents. This production softens a lot of the tension between two households as literal buildings separated by stretches of wild land, but it is still true that children are born and raised in anticipation of their parents’ death, to preserve the line of inheritance. Hindley’s great hatred of Heathcliff is directly in response to the threat he poses to the Earnshaw line of succession. The Earnshaws and the Lintons are born as facsimiles of their parents, to carry something. Rich people have children in an attempt to become immortal.

Heathcliff is a gross invasion, parentless and without lineage. Nelly acknowledges the wide power he might hold as a result; she tells him he could have come from anywhere – he could be the inheritor of powers and names immeasurably more noble and grand. He holds too many questions to the households he tears into. His existence makes the wealthy’s faith in their own future stupid. He disappears and reappears suddenly rich, well-held, by all appearances noble. Being rich is easy, Heathcliff proves. All it takes is cruelty.

This image should be violent, but non-specific. It should appear stained and difficult to look away from. Perhaps it is a pile of bloodied cloth. Perhaps the paper itself appears rent.

3: Portrait of Cathy, as a landscape

[Tove Jansson landscape]

Rakhee Sharma’s Cathy snarls at injustice. I think it is Nelly who refers to her ‘gilded cage’. This seems an absurd joke to Heathcliff, at his expense. Cathy to him has not known nearness to death, has not known the daily violence and oppression he has, in his years as urchin-turned-adopted son-turned-servant. It is unthinkable to Heathcliff that as a woman, Cathy’s agency is always precarious and suspect to scrutiny. As much as she may be an ally to underclass Heathcliff, if she commits prematurely they would only face penury together.

Sharma’s performance bears the weight of Cathy’s pragmatism, pinned by the decisions she has made to keep herself afloat. For all his surprising, willowy softness in Alex Austin’s portrayal, Heathcliff is no feminist. His structural analysis is not critical enough – his treatment has encouraged him to believe he can find no allies outside himself. (Though, by his treatment of Isabella, it is clear Heathcliff understands a great deal about the practical oppression of women.)

A landscape is not a flat thing. Tove Jansson, in any selection of her work, gives character. Whether there are striding creatures or plays between blues and pinks, Jansson’s landscapes are alive. Looking at a painting of a mountain or a fog by her, you can find yourself tricked into searching for eyes, a mouth. They have the sense of faces. Cathy has not been beaten flat. She rises up even until the end with violence, the surface of a boiling lake.

4: Portrait of Edgar, as a glass of milk

[submerged in milk] [Veiled Christ, Giuseppe Sanmartino]

Hindley stamps a foetal fox into mush but Edgar is the most disgusting thing on stage. Cathy may be gilded into a cage, but Edgar wraps himself in cotton and lies at the nearest person’s feet to allow them to trample him.

Edgar marries Cathy – in many ways is a thin lifeline to her, but he is limp with indecision at every critical stage. He is terrified of Heathcliff because he sees him as so far below. Looking at Heathcliff shows Edgar the height from which he might fall. He pens himself in by his adherence to inbred social sensibilities, more extreme by far than Cathy’s decision to marry him. He is hapless and terrified of unrest – he paralyses himself the instant anyone behaves not as they ought. His cowardice is a slim shade of the same pity which inspired Earnshaw to ward Heathcliff. He cannot bear to have his world change and so does nothing. At least Isabella and Cathy have the decency to act out, to feel something. In Wuthering Heights, Edgar’s lack of passion is revolting.

During one of his earliest appearances, he is offered tea and asks for a glass of milk. The audience laugh? gasp? groan? A noise of some sort. Whatever it was, it was more of outward action than Edgar ever shows. The obliviating whiteness of milk might be a comfort, but certainly it hides something.

5: Portrait of Heathcliff, as a knife

[see red women’s workshop] [No More Pipelines, Michael DeForge]

Wuthering Heights facilitates intrusion. It folds over and repeats itself. Bryony Shanahan’s production acknowledges this; the last thing we see is the children of the fraught generation before, playing on the moors just as Cathy and Heathcliff did. Making a play of the book is already an intrusion. Though I don’t think intrusion on Wuthering Heights is the disruptive force it might once have been. The text is so much intrusion it is only a loose fog of allusion by now. It is important, in this production, that the fog is sliced through.

Wuthering Heights doesn’t make sense because its characters don’t make sense. In turn, they make no sense because they were raised in senselessness. What Heathcliff and Cathy find in each other might well just be sensation, after a lifetime’s worth of numbness. When Heathcliff flees at the end of act one, Alexandra Faye Braithwaite’s sound design intrudes. For intensity of feeling, the sound and set design are a post-new romantic emo, split with shoegazey melodic surges which would fit in on an American Football release. Throughout, the drama feels teenaged; it is intense but young, idiotic and purely felt.

Poverty is a kind of trauma that is dangerous to touch; when one comes into contact with it, it shatters all possibility of a happily middle-class structure, to life, novels or theatre. Heathcliff is a pollutant, if you consider the lifestyle he interrupts as in any way pure.

6: Portrait of Heathcliff, as a jet of spit

[slugs mating] [Some Other Animal’s Meat, Emily Carroll]

Wuthering Heights facilitates intrusion. Hindley definitely wants to fuck Heathcliff. Heathcliff and Cathy spit at each other. The animal boy Heathcliff hisses and snarls. He is worried he might be eaten by a cow. The wind snarls. Hindley spits in the wrong direction and gets it all over his face. Earnshaw senior is disgusted at his son’s failures in morality and manliness. Heathcliff is fluid; Austin’s performance pitches him as wind, not stone.

Perhaps this image is not even recognisable as Heathcliff. Maybe it bears a resemblance to the illustration of Edgar as a glass of milk. They are both after all made wretched by the same thing in the end.

7: Portrait of Heathcliff, as lust

[Caballos con Carne, Lisa Hanawalt] [‘end scene’, Penelope Gazin] [from Dressing, Michael DeForge]

Of course I am obsessed with Heathcliff. Maybe for the title of this image ‘passion’ is a better word than ‘lust’. But I think lust does alright. It is not always sexual lust in Wuthering Heights. Often Wuthering Heights’s lust is a vaguer yen, the consequence of its characters staring out upon the blank, tearing void of the moors every day. Sometimes the pursuit of fleshly pleasures is more motivated by fleeing from oblivion than the search for fulfilment. If we can stave off our own dissolution one more day, we will be cared for by the ones we tell ourselves we love. The characters of Wuthering Heights tell themselves stories and do not listen to or care for each other. The roaring in their ears is not the wind outside, it is the voices of others.

I like to acknowledge that its characters always go away to change. People change when they are out of your sight. It’s funny how much they rage at each other to act differently when they share company, then when they are apart they finally have the space to do so.

I have never imagined a Heathcliff like Alex Austin’s. In my mind he was always heavy, broad, a bullock. It is the start of act two, as Heathcliff returns remade, that Austin falls into place. Heathcliff is loose-limbed, stalking and snide. He is emo and camp and powerful not for his passion but his sneering contempt for straight-backed authority. This is a Heathcliff I can picture weeping himself into a ball, a man I can imagine wrapping in my arms to try to comfort. Finally, I see how I might love him, how I might burn for his heart to beat in mine. He is a man you might gladly allow to slice open your cheek with a knife.

This image should probably not be just of Heathcliff. Maybe we can talk about this later but it might be interesting to talk about who Heathcliff is as seen by the other characters. Heathcliff is two things, at least: he is the way he sees the world; he is how he is seen by others. Maybe you can capture something of that? Either way, I look forward to your first drafts.

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James Varney

James is a writer and theatre maker, based in the middle parts of England. He has created work with Daniel Bye, Josh Coates and Lenni Sanders and had work presented at Derby Theatre, The Royal Exchange, Manchester Literature Festival, Live at LICA and Camden People’s Theatre. James enjoys Peanut Butter, DIY Punk and Long Walks On The Beach.

Review: Wuthering Heights at Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester Show Info


Directed by Bryony Shanahan

Written by Andrew Sheridan, after Emily Brontë

Cast includes Alex Austin, Rhiannon Clements, David Crellin, Dean Fagan, Samantha Power, Rakhee Sharma, Gurjeet Singh

Original Music Alexandra Faye Braithwaite

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