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I’ll admit, despite being an English student, I’ve never actually read Wuthering Heights, (shock horror!) so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I headed to a matinee performance of the new production at the Royal Exchange in Manchester. I suppose I had prepared for a Romeo and Juliet type scenario. With my knowledge of the story being admittedly primarily based on the song by Kate Bush and subsequent explanation of the lyrics online, all I knew was that Wuthering Heights involved the tragic death of the heroine and her subsequent haunting of her bereaved lover. I soon discovered the story to be a lot more complicated.
Written by Emily Bronte and published under the pseudonym Ellis Bell, the story is an evocative- and daring for the time- an exploration of feminine desire and what happens when two very different lives are set on an explosive collision course and become inextricably linked. It faced many controversies upon its publication for its dark themes, and bold criticisms of important aspects of Victorian society such as religion and class divides. A stark contrast to Romeo and Juliet, this production at least, told a much more realistic, long-lasting and haunting love story- a love-hate relationship between higher class Catherine and her uncouth and less educated adoptive brother Heathcliff.
Director Bryony Shanahan and Bruntwood prize-winning writer Andrew Sheridan’s imaginative retelling of the tale managed to capture the dank darkness of the Yorkshire moorland setting with a set comprising of greenery and rocks that somehow served to merge into a household scene when required. The use of low lighting which seemed to project the sense of foreboding on to the scenes, fantastic smoke effects, and an illustrative soundtrack performed by talented live musicians Sophie Galpin and Becky Wilkie, helped to bring the story to life.
This was an unconventional love story inspiringly prevailing through the characters’ lives and surviving the many years the couple spent apart. Alex Austin brilliantly captured the wild and untameable- except under his own terms- nature of Heathcliff, leading to a fantastic moment of tension and feeling of unnaturalness when we see him ‘scrub up’ first to try to impress, then to take revenge on Cathy by seducing her sister in law Isabella. Despite one slightly uncomfortable and perhaps gratuitous scene when we see him fully unclothed being bathed, (which did raise questions as to why an adult actor was playing Heathcliff as a child and the necessity of the scene), his unnerving stare and phenomenal stage presence undoubtedly made Austin perfect for the role. Rakhee Sharma shined as Cathy, capturing her flighty, eccentric and unpredictable character with the aid of the brilliant script with allowed for the odd perfectly placed comic swearword. The violence and jarring mocking of Heathcliff by his adoptive sibling Hindley was perfectly depicted through revelations of Hindley’s psychotic nature such as his graphic murdering of a pregnant fox. All in all, a spine-chilling and thought-provoking production paying tribute to the original novel.