Review: Wuthering Heights at York Theatre Royal

What did I expect to see at the new Emma Rice production? Humour? Theatricality? Exhilarating style? I got all of those with a large helping of darkness and death. But it was a sense of The Wuthering Heights Experience that I took away with me.

By Angie Millard

In Wise Children’s production of the masterpiece, Heathcliff becomes an unaccompanied refugee who has seen and suffered much. His rescue by Mr Earnshaw is the start of his journey in a Revenge Tragedy which becomes his life.

In the programme notes, Rice speaks of discovering Wuthering Heights as a Sixth Former and after losing a friend to leukaemia, she felt that Bronte understood death and loss.

She has created a chorus to act as narrators, in which Nandi Bhebhe becomes the spirit of the Yorkshire Moors surrounded by others who, as the incarnation of the bleak environment, dance with wild abandonment. Ash Hunter is a compelling Heathcliff, Lucy McCormick is a strong embodiment of Catherine’s yearnings and disappointments. The production shows her as a rebellious rock-chick while Hunter plays his role with more sincerity and a passion which inevitably leads him to cruelty and bitterness. Rice uses the novel as her foundation and in one section when Catherine tries to describe her feelings by saying, ‘I am Heathcliffe and whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same’, it is heart wrenchingly sad.

There is much fun in the gender mixing of Katy Owen playing Isabella and Linton and the comic casting of Sam Archer as the inept Lockwood. Rice cannot be completely straight; camp theatricality lurks and helps to confuse us. The company works seamlessly as a polished ensemble.

The set, by Vicki Mortimer, is a concoction of flimsy walls and doors which are moved on stage on casters. Props like the books on sticks are used to represent fluttering birds and a yellow skipping rope becomes the wind, catching people as they run on the moor. Simon Baker’s videos produce the sometimes wild unpredictability of the weather and Ian Ross’s music provides the perfect marriage of sound and intensity. He manages to turn the piece into a Folk Opera at times and his close understanding of Rice’s intentions is always evident. Add the frenzy of Etta Murfitt’s choreography to the mix and the atmosphere is electric.

Emma Rice’s vision has compassion as well as violence and hatred; it gives us hope in the power of kindness. What did I expect to see? I expected to be shocked by the unusual, to be surprised by the innovative and I wasn’t disappointed. The play is on tour and goes to The National Theatre in 2022. York audiences are privileged to see it until Saturday 20 November.