Wuthering Heights

The Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester; Wednesday 12th February, 2020

If all else perished, and he remained, I should still continue to be; and if all else remained, and he were annihilated, the universe would turn to a mighty stranger. 

Emily Brontë

Nearly two centuries have passed since it was first published but Emily Brontë’s one and only novel Wuthering Heights still stands alone as the go-to benchmark for any twisted expression of all-consuming passion and uncontrollable obsession.

In her first offering since becoming joint Artistic Director at the Royal Exchange, director Bryony Shanahan delivers a production which seems to tentatively touch upon most of the raw nerves that the original book so expertly toyed with.

The show opens as a faithful re-enactment of the novel: the first half is long, possibly too long, characters are introduced, plot lines are planted – much of it feels like (necessary) background-setting for those who may not be familiar with the original novel.

Thankfully the theatrical shackles are fully released in a much more atmospheric second half which owes much of its potency to an excellent soundtrack being performed live by Sophie Galpin and Becky Wilkie. The musical composition is outstanding but there just isn’t enough of it – the periodic absence of any accompaniment repeatedly threatens to push proceedings towards an exercise in script reading rather than an expressive interpretation of theme and mood.

Hence Wuthering Heights is neither a loyal enactment of one of the English language’s finest works nor is it an abstracted exploration of the emotional extremes that the book presents to its readers. This is a production that hovers somewhere between the two.

Is there a need to present details, to set the background of the full, original story, even for those not familiar with it? Not really: the emotional surge in this production comes screaming off the stage in the second half as the ever-escalating stand-off between Heathcliff (Alex Austin) and Cathy (Rakhee Sharma) suddenly begins to boil over.

These second-half performances are excellent and finally begin to approach the heart of the matter: Cathy cutting the misty haze with her laser-like vicious glares as her world comes tumbling down around her; Heathcliff sending blood pressures soaring with his arrogant swagger and obscene acts of cruelty.

Wuthering Heights is a sultry and deeply atmospheric show, one which should serve as a pleasing introduction to anyone who isn’t familiar with the classic novel. For those who are already ardent enthusiasts, the summary feeling towards this performance would probably be not too dissimilar to what any of us would say to Heathcliff and Cathy if we got the chance: stop worrying about what others think and just do it will you, you’ll only regret it if you don’t.


Photography: Helen Murray


Performance AspectCommentsScore
Visual pleasureA nice-enough looking set, though didn’t seem to quite capture the howling insanity of the misty moors, or the cold, stoney confines of the house itself.3
Auditory pleasureOutstanding original composition, most of which was played live on stage. Even the simplest parts (e.g. a 10-minute long, heartbeat-paced bass drum percussion) served to add atmosphere and mood.5
Architecture & ThemeSeems to be built around being a prim and proper staging of a literary classic; yet also occasionally surges into surrealist abstractionism – these are the defining scenes and perhaps more should have been made of them. 3
Artistic deliveryOutstanding acting performances and musical delivery from all involved. Rakhee Sharma as Cathy seemed to be the most convincing and compelling character, exuding all the relevant character attributes at the right moments.5
Overall impactStarted quite slowly and was a little too long in the first half but all the power of the original novel did finally come through in an explosive second half which produced so much emotion.5
Final Score:4.2

Scoring Scheme

0Detrimental – This aspect of the performance was so bad that it made the overall experience worse
1Weak – This aspect of the performance was poor
2Adequate – This aspect of the performance was perfectly acceptable, though nothing special
3Good – This aspect of the performance was above average, it pleased in some way
4Excellent – This aspect of the performance was much better than normal, it was impressive
5Awe-inspiring – This aspect of the performance was exceptional, new boundaries were pushed.

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