Photo credit: Ash Hunter (Heathcliff), Lucy McCormick (Cathy) and Nandi Bhebhe (The Moor) (Photo by Steve Tanner)

‘Wuthering Heights’ at the National Theatre review — Emma Rice brings humour to the Emily Brontë novel

Suzy Evans
Suzy Evans

Wuthering Heightsis an incredibly difficult book to adapt. Most of the characters have the same names (yes, we all know that Catherine and Heathcliff but there are several others with the same moniker), and almost everyone is related. The narrative takes place both in the present and the past, and the overall aesthetic and plot of the Emily Brontë novel is more moody vibes than forward-moving action. 

That's a tricky recipe for theatre, but adapter and director Emma Rice does her darndest, pulling out all the stops with music, movement, and unexpected comedy. The production, of a quite serious and dark story, is entirely unserious, and the talented ensemble employs a level of play in their various antics that belies the harsher realities of the story. There are puppets, modern dance, and self-aware jokes about the amount of people with the surnames Earnshaw and Linton. 

Quick spark notes on Wuthering Heights: The story is set on the Yorkshire Moors, where Heathcliff lives at his estate Wuthering Heights with his nephew and his daughter-in-law. He is mourning the loss of his love Catherine, who haunts the property since she died in childbirth. 

Meanwhile, Heathcliff's tenant Mr. Lockwood who lives at the house across the moors, Thrushcross Grange, is stuck at the home in a storm and investigates the peculiarity of the family and the land. There's a lot more to it, but that's the basic premise. 

Rice has made some slight changes to the story's structure. In the book, the Thrushcross Grange housekeeper Nelly Dean tells Lockwood the story of Catherine and Heathcliff in flashback, and here the narrator of the story is the "Moor," an energetic and captivating Nandi Bhebhi sporting a crown of sticks. 

The rest of the actors form an ensemble of dancers as members of the "moor" in interludes between scenes, and Etta Murfitt's choreography helps propel the action and energy of the piece. The Lyttleton Theatre feels somewhat cavernous, lit in blue by designer Jai Morjaria, and Vicki Mortimer's strong aesthetic permeates every facet of the flexible set and period-appropriate costumes. 

The hard-working cast takes on many roles, save Lucy McCormick who plays the central Catherine throughout her life and after life. McCormick leans into the heightened take on the piece in her piercing wails and screams, and her performance is more tragic and tortured than haunting. Standouts in the company include Katy Owen, who is a veritable chameleon and comedienne extraordinaire, and Witney White, who brings a complex and pointed take on sometimes forgotten minor characters. 

Overall, this production has a bit of an identify crisis. While it's refreshing to enjoy and even laugh at such a dismal story, when the play does try to convey gravitas, the moment loses some of its credibility. But for anyone who has struggled to make it through this enchanting-though-difficult novel, Rice provides a fresh take on the story that has the potential to entice a few lost readers. 

Wuthering Heights is at the National Theatre to 19 March.

Photo credit: Ash Hunter (Heathcliff), Lucy McCormick (Cathy) and Nandi Bhebhe (The Moor) (Photo by Steve Tanner)

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