Wise Children’s energetic adaptation of “Wuthering Heights” opens with a marvelous bit of physical theatre. Mr. Lockwood arrives in the midst of a storm to visit the ill-fated house of “Wuthering Heights,” mastered by the inhospitable Heathcliff. The storm is amazing. The actors persuade us of the force of the wind, the band mimics the sounds of a storm, and, using acrobatic circus techniques, Mr. Lockwood appears to be actually swept off the ground to blow in the wind as he clings to the doorpost. It’s delightful and funny.
This is followed, not long after, by the introduction of the very charismatic Nandi Bhebhe as The Leader of the Yorkshire Moors. He is Black, and dressed in what one must presume is somebody’s idea of a traditional Moorish costume, and accompanied by a group of dancer/singers called “The Moors” – it is a silly, slightly cringe-inducing racial pun, that momentarily amuses but adds nothing to our understanding of Bronte’s romantic masterpiece.
Although it is as thoroughly entertaining as a well designed, exciting video game, this production is utterly devoid of romance. None of the characters are presented as likable or even particularly interesting people — although they certainly move well. The chemistry between Cathy and Heathcliff is lacking. The confusing plot is clarified (somewhat) by the use of various para-theatrical tools including puppets, signs, acrobatics, a commenting chorus (remember those Moors), and a variety of interesting and entertaining set pieces.
It’s a lot of excitement and a lot of hard work, but in this case the whole is a good deal less than the sum of its parts.
As a sort of circus performance on the theme of “Wuthering Heights,” this production is quite entertaining.
As an adaptation of Bronte’s masterpiece, it is singularly ill-fitting.
I cannot help but conclude that if director and adaptor Emma Rice found “Wuthering Heights” to be so difficult as to require a treatment of this sort to make it accessible to a modern audience, why didn’t she simply choose some other novel?
I mean, If an adaptation cuts out the romantic heart of the greatest Gothic romance in the history of English literature and presents it, instead, as low comedy, what’s the point? I suppose the point is to entertain at any cost, and I do admit that this show offers good entertainment.
But surely, Emily, Heathcliff, and Cathy deserve better. “Wuthering Heights” is not the stuff of a Christmas pantomime.
“Wuthering Heights” continues to play at Berkeley Rep through January 1. For further information click here.
Rating: **1/2 (For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.)
“Wuthering Heights”, adapted by Emma Rice from the novel by Emily Brontë. A National Theatre, Wise Children, Bristol Old Vic, and York Theatre co-production. Presented By Berkeley Repertory. Director/Adaptor: Emma Rice. Composer: Ian Ross. Set and Costume Design: Vicki Mortimer. Simon Baker: Sound and Video Design. Etta Murfitt: Movement Director and Choreographer. John Leader: Puppetry Director. Kev McCurdy: Fight Director. Pat Moran: Music Director.
Sam Archer: Lockwood/Edgar/Linton/The Moors. Leah Brotherhead: Catherine. Georgia Bruce: Isabella Linton/Little Linton/The Moors. Ricardo Castro: Robert/The Moors. Katy Ellis: Zillah/The Moors. Stehanie Elstob: Swing. Lloyd Gorman: Mr. Earnshaw/The Moors/Band. TJ Holmes: Dr. Kenneth/The Moors/Band. Jordan Laviniere: The Leader of the Yorkshire Moors Tama Phethean: Hindley Earnshaw/Hareton Earnshaw/The Moors. Eleanor Sutton: Frances Earnnshaw/Young Cathy/The Moors. Liam Tamme: Heathcliff. Sid Goldsmith: Band (Guitars). Vincent De Jesus: Band (Percusion). Pat Moran: Band (Bass Guitar/Music Director).
Note: For the performance reviewed, understudy Katy Elis played Isabella Linton/Little Linton/The Moors and understudy Steph Elstab played Zillah/The Moors.