Wuthering Heights: Bronte's modern-day brats are wildly unlikeable
Lua Bairstow, Ike Bennett and Giula Innocenti. Photo (c) Alex Brenner.
Wuthering Heights, Warwick Arts Centre until 18 May.
Review by Annette Kinsella
For many children of the 70s, their first encounter with Emily Bronte’s Gothic classic Wuthering Heights was the red dress-clad Kate Bush twirling about on the wily windy moors trilling about Heathcliff in the video for her 1978 number one.
Equally bemusing and appealing in equal measures is the latest stage version of the novel written by Ben Lewis, for company Inspector Sands.
Telling the story of orphan Heathcliff, who falls in love with the daughter of his adopted family but spends his life seeking revenge when he is spurned, this production takes the 19th century themes of class war, slavery and the place of women in society, and adds a modern twist.
The cast of Wuthering Heights. Photo (c) Alex Brenner.
The contemporary perspective casts rich neighbours Edgar (Leander Deeny) and Isabella Linton (Nicole Sawyer) as saccharine-sweet, fame-hungry X Factor wannabees, while housekeeper Nelly (Giulia Innocenti) and Hindley (John Askew) serenade each other with Backstreet Boys ballads.
Meanwhile Heathcliff (Ike Bennett), introduced as a runaway slave, turns up as a sulky tweenager from Africa and clad in a zip up tracksuit top, which he later swaps for a blingy brocade blazer to signify his transformation into a man of means. In modern parlance, Heathcliff is seen as the archetypal brooding Mills and Boons hero. However, this Heathcliff is truer to Bronte’s original characterisation – petty, meanspirited and barely redeemed by his love for Cathy,
Lua Bairstow and Giula Innocenti. Photo (c) Alex Brenner.
Despite the underlying social issues, this play is unmistakably the story of Nelly. She begins the story alone at a kitchen table, interrogated by the disembodied voice of a witchfinder who demands she relate her story. The theme of witchery continues throughout, with Nelly’s status as a poor servant spinster consigning her to accusations of jealousy and baby-stealing, but powerless to change her fortunes. Acting as a foil to her persona is Catherine (Lua Bairstow) who longs to eschew her middle class and run free with Heathcliff. Vitriolic, spiteful and constantly on the verge of a nervous breakdown, Cathy is barely more likeable than Heathcliff, Edgar or Isabella.
Overall, Lewis’ treatment of Bronte’s classic is pacy and original and the contemporary references gives it a fresh bite for modern audiences. The problem is the star-crossed lovers – and the rest of the characters - are so realistically unlikeable it is a struggle to feel any empathy for their plights by the conclusion.
For more information and to book tickets: https://www.warwickartscentre.co.uk/whats-on/Mdz-wuthering-heights/