How ‘Wuthering Heights’ became a mad musical
The Daily Beast
October 18, 2022
Everything, including a pulsating score, is thrown at the empty stage at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn to take us to Emily Bronte’s forbidding moors and their roiling passions.
On the decoration-free stage in front of us, with equipment, ladders, tools, and chairs for the actors to sit on when not in the scene, how will adaptor and director Emma Rice transport us to the roiling moors of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights (St. Ann’s Warehouse, to Nov. 6)?
Anyone who knows the revered Rice’s radical, enveloping previous works of theater—like Wise Children, Brief Encounter, and The Red Shoes—know we need not fear. Everything playful and mischievous is thrown on to the tabula rasa in front of us to take us up to those forbidding hills, as well as a loud, percussive score. The production doesn’t do anything as obvious as play or even allude to the legendary Kate Bush track, but the production is just as determined to achieve a similar kind of immersive loopiness. British critics raved about this show, and the audience for the opening night this critic attended was fervent in its appreciation too.
Faithful to the book is a delight in its complication of character and plot. Sam Archer as Lockwood appears first, set upon by a vicious dog and general human unfriendliness, holding on to a door for dear life as the wind howls. He’s puzzled and tries to get any kind of physical and emotional grip on what is before him, as do we. The audience is offered character and plot summaries as Nandi Bhebhe (the leader of the Yorkshire Moors, a kind of narrator) tries to marshal the insanity unfolding from the pen of Bronte. The musical seems arch, ironic, and also serious—and the tonal shifts are confusing and unconvincing.
What you are not left with is any sense that Heathcliff (Liam Tamne) and Cathy (Lucy McCormick) are a great idea for a relationship, or any kind of romantic ideal, or even so-crazy-they-work. They seem deeply screwed up and beyond toxic—even as young kids when Heathcliff is first bought to Wuthering Heights, and bullied relentlessly by the brutish Hindley (Tama Phethean).
The production is a mix of physical theater and musical, with minimal stage adornments—a door is wheeled on to allow or disallow entry to homes and rooms. Yes, there are windows (so important practically and symbolically in Wuthering Heights). A chorus of singers doubles as the Moors in all their windy wildness. McCormick is a wild-haired, furious, unstable Catherine, and the standout song in Wuthering Heights is the wailing rock song she bellows at us before she dies.
But just as she and Heathcliff seem a bad idea, so the second act’s focus on young Cathy’s (Eleanor Sutton) relationship with Little Linton (Katy Owen) becomes a repetitive story that sees her abused and locked up away from her father by a now fully mad Heathcliff. It becomes tiresome, especially as—brilliant as Owen is as both a prim and puzzled Isabella Linton and sick Linton—the story sort of freezes at this point, and characters shout and wheedle and plead for minutes on end. A happy ending and some blue skies appear as both a surprise and relief.
The energy of the performers and the pumping music keep Rice’s Wuthering Heights pulsating to the end—but to what end was the question that nagged at the mind of this critic until he got home and put the Kate Bush track on straightaway.