By Sarah Downs
Emily Brontë’s uber-Romantic novel Wuthering Heights has gotten a makeover, in a tumultuous production that blows across the St. Ann’s Warehouse stage like a gale force wind. Director Emma Rice has made the commendable choice of presenting the full cast of the novel. She fills the stage with a flurry of activity, in which characters morph into their opposites, in a near blur of emotion.
As the play begins, actors trickle onto the stage in modern dress over which strategically edited period costume pieces will be added and subtracted, compressing layers of character description into visual metaphor. A Greek chorus of sorts sits at the periphery, moving in and out of the action. They embody the Yorkshire Moors, led by their ‘queen’ (a charismatic Nandi Bhebhe,) with her crown of wooden branches. The Moor are both tempest and terrain.
The Romantic obsession with reason vs. passion finds its apotheosis in this Wuthering Heghts, but the exhausting pace of this production and its emphasis on madness over reason can obscure that crucial dichotomy. As a result, Catherine (Lucy McCormick) spends the majority of her time in an agitated state. In her thrashing solo “I am the Ender” she shows us Cathy the predator – sure of herself, nihilistic and, inevitably unlikeable. In addition, most of the actors, especially McCormick, suffer from a requirement to scream many of their lines. Brief moments of quiet, in a snippet of a sweet folk ballad here and there offer too brief a respite from the fury of the blast.
Isabella Linton (Katy Owen) is delightfully peculiar. Small and sprightly, with very leap and comedic take to the audience, Owen endears. Similarly, Sam Archer stand out as the farcical Lockwood. Iconically tall dark and handsome, Heathcliff Liam Tamne) visibly smolders. He also possesses a beautiful speaking voice. The object of his derision, Hindley Earnshaw (Tama Phethean) is as mean as Earnshaw’s son Hareton (also Phethean) is innocent. To close the circle of fate, Hareton meets Young Cathy (a believably youthful, strong-minded Eleanor Sutton), whose mood swings eerily remind one of her mother.
Vicki Mortimer’s set comprises numerous imaginative, mobile set pieces which roll silently across the stage, including a multipaneled glass wall and exquisite thrones of tumbling wooden chairs that conjure a room with whimsical economy. Under Jai Morjaria’s everchanging lighting, from day to night, from ghostly pastels to starkest whites, the scene is visually striking.
One difficulty for any staging of this novel is that you have to foreshadow the ending from the first moment, without yet playing it. It is easy to spend a lot of the time in Gothic mode. I appreciate the theatricality of telling the story as one simultaneously abstracts it, but at times the relentlessly breathless performances can verge on precious.
A huge chunk of the action takes place in Act I, in an ‘all is past is prologue’ set-up. Act II asks the audience “What do we expect?” as in, did we really think this would end well? That something as trite as romance would ensue? I disagree with the conclusion that any element of romance would be trite, or somehow evidence of lowbrow artistic taste. And so, I think, would Emily Bronte. Hence the ending.
The dynamic ideas anchoring this production, its visual appeal and the uniformly strong performances of all of the actors give Wuthering Heights much to recommend it, but clocking in at nearly three hours, it’s a long slog to the final payoff.
Wuthering Heights, based on the Novel by Emily Brontë, adapted and directed by Emma Rice. With Sam Archer, Nandi Bhebhe, Katy Ellis, Stephanie Elstop, Lloyd Gorman, TJ Holmes, Jordan Laviniere, Lucy McCormick, Katy Owen, Tama Phethean, Liam Tamne, and Eleanor Sutton. Band: Sid Goldsmith, Pat Moran, Jeevan Singh, Lloyd Gorman, TJ Homes.
Set and costume design by Vicki Mortimer, sound design by Simon Baker, lighting design by Jai Morjaria, choreography by Eta Murfitt, puppetry direction by John Leader. Composer: Ian Ross, Musical Director: Pat Moran.
Presented by Wise Children at St. Ann’s Warehouse (45 Water St., DUMBO, Brooklyn), October 14 – November 6, 2022. For tickets, go to stannswarehouse.org or contact the Box Office at firstname.lastname@example.org or tel. 718-254-8779.
Runtime is 2 hours and 50 minutes, with one intermission. Note: Masks MUST be worn inside the building.