“Wuthering Heights” Uses Music, Puppetry to Retell Brontë’s Tale; Wise Children’s Contemporary, Stylized Adaptation Comes to McCarter
WISE CHILDREN’S “WUTHERING HEIGHTS”: Performances are underway for Wise Children’s “Wuthering Heights.” Based on the novel by Emily Brontë; and adapted and directed by Emma Rice, the play with songs runs through March 12 at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre. Above, from left, are the Leader of the Moors (Jordan Laviniere), Heathcliff (Ricardo Castro), and Catherine (Eleanor Sutton) — with a band behind them. (Photo by Jimmy O’Shea)
By Donald H. Sanborn III
McCarter is presenting Wise Children’s Wuthering Heights. Emily Brontë’s 1847 novel, which depicts the idiosyncratic bond between the free-spirited Catherine Earnshaw and her embittered foster brother Heathcliff, is interpreted via a unique, contemporary aesthetic.
Adapted and directed by Emma Rice, this version resolutely avoids the naturalism and textual fidelity typically expected of a Masterpiece episode in favor of a lively, unabashedly theatrical presentation that incorporates music, dance, and puppetry.
Rice is the artistic director of Wise Children, the Bristol (U.K.)-based company that she founded in 2017. McCarter is the final stop on the U.S. tour of Wuthering Heights.
In the novel, Mr. Lockwood, the new tenant at Thrushcross Grange (in Yorkshire), visits Heathcliff — who is his landlord — at Wuthering Heights. There he meets Cathy Linton and Hareton Earnshaw. Later, Lockwood’s housekeeper, Ellen “Nelly” Dean, explains to him the history of the estate’s inhabitants.
Rice has eliminated Nelly Dean. In that character’s place is a Greek chorus-like ensemble, The Moors, which embody the grassland occupied by Wuthering Heights. “Nothing here can change me … my story is bigger than passing fancy,” the chorus mystically sings in the soul-flavored opening number, “I am the Moor.”
The stirring, eclectic songs have been written by composer Ian Ross. Wuthering Heights is not a musical along the lines of Hamilton, but the songs and incidental music are more than mere underscoring or mood-setting, and certain characters — particularly Catherine and Heathcliff — sing.
In “Feral Joy” the chorus chants to a repeated pitch, to a rhythm that tends to eschew a steady pulse; in the middle is an expressive string solo. “Cut Through the Dirt” evokes a traditional English ballad; a contemplative instrumental opening gives way to a sweeping, insistent vocal line. “Cathy’s Curse” veers into heavy metal. Ross’ music demands — and gets — high energy and vocal power from the talented company.
The Moors are portrayed by Katy Ellis, who also plays Zillah, Heathcliff’s housekeeper; Stephanie Elstob; TJ Holmes, who also plays Dr. Kenneth; and several other members of the cast. The cast is accompanied by an onstage band: music director and bass guitarist Pat Moran, percussionist Vincent De Jesus, and guitarist Sid Goldsmith.
As the company sings — while moving to Etta Murfitt’s energetic, flowing choreography — Jai Morjaria’s lighting often makes the show resemble a rock concert, albeit one with a plot.
Along with the chorus, the Leader of the Yorkshire Moors (Jordan Laviniere) interacts with both the audience and the other characters. They disseminate exposition, question characters about their actions, and — likely anticipating the reactions of some audience members — opine about the complexities of the novel’s plot, sizeable chunks of which, sometimes, the show hectically conveys in minutes.
The use of a Greek chorus is one of multiple examples of Rice using an iconic theatrical device in a contemporary context. Another such example is melodrama. Ricardo Castro menacingly delivers the pithiest lines written for Heathcliff — an oppressed man who becomes an oppressor — with almost operatic forcefulness. He often does so while bathed in strobe lights.
The terms “melodrama” and “melodramatic” now tend to be pejorative, synonymous with simplistic characterizations and bombastic performances. However, Rice’s evocation of the genre here is apt, as it was popular with theatergoers at the time of the publication of Wuthering Heights.
Providing a backdrop for the oral narration of The Moors, Simon Baker’s video design remembers the story’s literary origins. Quotes from the novel (printed in a font that resembles elegant handwriting) are projected on a screen. Baker also creates the sound design, which punctuates the show — in which supremacy is a
crucial theme — with cracks of a whip (and steady gusts of wind).
As a young orphan, Heathcliff is brought by Mr. Earnshaw (portrayed by Lloyd Gorman) to live at Wuthering Heights. Earnshaw’s own children have opposing reactions to this. Catherine (Eleanor Sutton) gradually becomes close friends with Heathcliff, while Hindley (Tama Phethean) interminably bullies him, often beating him to the ground. Puppets are used to portray Catherine, Hindley, and Heathcliff as children — deftly illustrating their lack of control over their own lives. John Leader is the puppetry director.
Earnshaw rebukes Hindley for his cruel treatment of Heathcliff. However, when Earnshaw dies, Hindley becomes master of Wuthering Heights, and swiftly designates Heathcliff as a servant. As Hindley’s abuse worsens, Heathcliff’s relationship with Catherine becomes closer, and more passionate.
This heightens Heathcliff’s sense of betrayal when, in the interest of ascending in socioeconomic status, Catherine marries Edgar Linton (Sam Archer, who also plays Lockwood), a decision that is pointedly questioned by The Moors. Hindley, meanwhile, marries Frances (Stephanie Hockley’s performance is suitably demure, contrasting the character with the free-spirited Catherine).
To punish Catherine, Heathcliff — who eventually comes into wealth — enters into a loveless marriage with Edgar’s sister Isabella (Georgia Bruce). A tragic circumstance near the end of the first act leads Heathcliff to become even more bitter, cruel, and manipulative in the second. Eventually he plans a scheme involving his and Isabella’s son Linton (Bruce, in a dual role) and Young Cathy (played by Hockley), the daughter of Catherine and Edgar.
The extent to which Heathcliff manipulates other characters and their circumstances gives heightened relevance to the use of puppetry. As a child, he is depicted in the form of a puppet — he (along with Catherine and Hindley) is manipulated by the actors. Now, thematically, the other characters have become Heathcliff’s puppets.
It is one thing to fill a play with a variety of theatrical devices and concepts. Making production ideas organic to the story’s themes, as Rice does, can be more challenging (and therefore, not always managed or, sometimes, even attempted). That is why Rice’s vision succeeds.
At times this show has its excesses. For example, the frequent video footage of birds flying across the screen becomes visually distracting. Generally, though, Rice and her design team prioritize a union of theme and production choices, which serves the piece well.
Castro infuses Heathcliff with a mixture of menace and eerily debonair calm, punctuated with periodic eruptions of rage. Eleanor Sutton’s sturdy, impassioned performance ensures that Catherine is a match for this.
Catherine famously says, “I am Heathcliff. He’s always, always in my mind: not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself, but as my own being.” At one point in the show, Set and Costume Designer Vicki Mortimer dresses both characters in white, highlighting this complicated affinity.
Rice further explores this notion through the use of vertical levels, placing them high up on a ladder with which Mortimer has furnished the stage. They are on the same level, metaphorically and now literally. (Rice uses a similar device to accentuate Heathcliff’s transformation from being the one who is beaten to the ground to being in a higher position than other characters.)
Rice and Mortimer favor startling visual juxtapositions, such as chandeliers that descend in front of (video projections of) open air. (Is this to point out that the estate intrudes on nature?) Mortimer’s costumes range from exaggerated period outfits to modern, casual apparel. This is a fitting dichotomy for a show that is aware of the period in which its story is set — but determinedly views it through the lens of our own time.
Produced by National Theatre, Wise Children, Bristol Old Vic, and York Theatre Royal, in association with Berkeley Repertory Theatre; and adapted and directed by Emma Rice, Wise Children’s “Wuthering Heights” runs through March 12 at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre. McCarter’s website notes that parental discretion is advised for references to or depictions of physical and sexual violence; the play is recommended for ages 10 and up. For tickets or additional information, visit McCarter.org.