Wise Children’s production of Wuthering Heights opens with us meeting Mr Lockwood, a new lodger of Mr Heathcliff. As in Emily Brontë’s book, it is through Mr Lockwood learning the story of Heathcliff and Cathy’s doomed love, and its terrible consequences, that we hear it. Narrated to him here by the spirits of the Yorkshire moors, it is a twisting tale, with Lockwood remarking on the characters’ complex family tree early on. One of the great strengths of this production is the clarity of the storytelling – despite characters sharing names, complicated family relationships, and jumps in time it is always clear what is going on. It is, however, the style of the show that feels muddled.
Like all of Emma Rice’s shows, Wuthering Heights is full of inventive quirks and fun moments, but it often feels like going through the motions of her trademark style. There are still moments of beauty – chorus members screaming as the wind rushes through an opened doorway, Witney White as Frances Earnshaw repeatedly falling from the arms of her husband as she continues to assure him she will be fine – but these are inconsistent. Some of Rice’s signature moves feel haphazardly thrown together – there’s a massive projection screen which serves little use other than showing cloudy skies, a performer runs out into the audience only to return to the stage without really having done anything, and some members of the ensemble are largely underused while others multi-role several characters. Some moments – books used as flying birds, a slow motion explosion of chairs – are so familiar from numerous physical theatre productions as to edge on parody.
The show is full of tonal juxtapositions – a couple create the best moments of the show, but several are jarring, and many just feel like there’s been a lack of clear decision making. After agreeing to marry Edgar Linton, Lucy McCormick’s Catherine grabs a microphone and gives an unbridled performance of a rocky, screaming song. This moment is immediately followed by a wedding, for which the cast sings a sickly sweet ditty. The contrast here is one of the highlights of the show, so clearly does it show Cathy’s incompatibility with the world around her. But it is a shame that this is the only moment such contrast appears – most of Cathy’s songs are folky ballads, and it seems a waste of both the idea and McCormick as a performer that we don’t hear this version of Cathy more.
On the less successful end of the scale is a scene near the end in which Lockwood returns to a much-changed Wuthering Heights three months after Heathcliffe’s death to find Hareton and Young Cathy newly married. The change in atmosphere is obviously supposed to be marked, but is so extreme that any emotional connection to the story is dulled; the cloudy skies turn to an almost Windows desktop background-blue sky, and the couple appear with a freshly-baked Victoria sponge cake, dressed like they’re in an article about people leaving high paid jobs to pursue a simple life in the country. It undermines the couple’s touching courtship, and even the emotional weight of the show of a whole – why should we care about events so quickly forgotten?
One consistent element is the quality of the cast’s performances; Lucy McCormick’s wild, frantic eyes as Catherine; Ash Hunter’s turns from fire to ice as Heathcliff; Nandi Bhebhe’s magnetism as leader of The Moor; Tama Phethean’s gruff vulnerability as Hareton. It is their individual magnetism, and the chemistry between them, that keeps the show engaging even as it loses direction.
This production makes a lot significant decisions, but none of them strong enough to give the show a cohesive drive. It is by turns moody, silly, hopeful, and violent – elements that in much of Rice’s previous work have combined to make a rich and layered story. Here they never quite meld together, and so the show is left bobbing along through the story, never reaching its heart.
Wuthering Heights runs at the Bristol Old Vic until 6th November, then tours until May 2022. More info here.