Photo credit: Dylan Evans
Love will tear us apart. This song lyric by the late Ian Curtis of Joy Division seems an appropriate way to sum up the gothic romance tale, Wuthering Heights. Queensland’s shake & stir theatre co. have produced a rather faithful and intense adaptation of Emily Brontë’s story, but it also manages to add a few cotemporary flourishes that complement the melodrama.
The play begins with an ominous crash of thunder and lightning and this serves as a signpost for the drama that is to come. Hindley (Nick Skubij who doubles as the show’s adaptor and director) and Catherine Earnshaw are privileged young siblings living on an estate known as Wuthering Heights on the Yorkshire moors. The pair are also the children of Mr Earnshaw, a character who is omitted from this production. Mr Earnshaw adopts a young, sullen gypsy boy he names Heathcliff and this act sets off a chain of events that has ramifications for multiple generations.
Gemma Willing is excellent in the starring role as the wild and free-spirited Catherine and in the second act she plays this formidable woman’s young daughter. As children, Catherine and Heathcliff (played by Ross Balbuziente who does a fantastic job, especially when playing the adult version of this character) were once inseparable friends. They would also become lovers until Catherine meets her neighbours from Thrushcross Grange, Edgar Linton (Tim Dashwood who seems a touch too feminine and almost camp) and his sister Isabella (Nelle Lee who juggles multiple roles quite seamlessly).
The meeting between Catherine and the Lintons will leave her a changed woman. She loses her youthful innocence and wild ways and instead becomes a stately and elegant young woman. She accepts Linton’s marriage proposal and rejects Heathcliff’s advances despite her heart telling her to do the opposite. Catherine is punished for this both emotionally and spiritually and descends into madness while Heathcliff is incensed and vows to exact revenge, even if he has to bide his time for multiple decades.
This adaptation is faithful to Brontë’s original tale because it shows both Heathcliff and Catherine’s relationship as well as the impact of this disturbed love affair on the next generation. The actors each put in some great performances and offer subtler turns when they are playing the younger generation of children whereas more intense and visceral emotions are required for the older ones. Some of the actors play multiple roles across time but the exception to this is the pragmatic narrator Nelly Dean (Linden Wilkinson who had a hard job remembering so many lines and sometimes forgot these) and the dark and villainous Heathcliff. These two are integral to the story and really carry it.
The set is minimal but it works because it is able to double as two different manor houses as well as offer the backdrop for the treacherous moors, complete with life-like rain, thunder and lightning. Some musical motifs are repeated as the scenes change and this adds a certain neatness to the structure, especially when considering that it is such a dense and sprawling story. This adaptation also uses large video projections that really showcase the heightened emotions of the characters and their extinguished flames as they pass away. This is one sumptuous visual feast to say the least.
It is unfortunate that the set also let down the actors on at least a few occasions. There are times when the characters stood behind a shrouded curtain at the back and while this added extra mystery to the piece, it did make it difficult to hear and understand them at times. The first act was also a bit too long and while it ended with Catherine’s death, it felt a little anti-climactic with Dean finishing things by mentioning that there was something contained in a note. Thankfully the actual end of the play reached a more rousing crescendo.
Wuthering Heights is a dark and slow-burning play that sits on the knife edge of love, loss, betrayal, jealousy and revenge. It’s one complex and visceral story of a destructive and disturbing love that would shake a family to its core and be felt by the following generation. shake & stir theatre co.’s adaptation remains true to the classic tale while also offering a welcome modern slant that effectively captures the heady and human emotions of the original narrative. In short, it makes it all feel rather intense and real for a whole new generation of audiences.
Originally published on 24 March 2016 at the following website: http://arts.theaureview.com/reviews/theatre-review-wuthering-heights-riverside-theatre-parramatta-22-03-16/
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