Painter and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti called Emily Brontë’s gothic masterpiece Wuthering Heights “a fiend of a book”. This full-throttled, unfettered and occasionally chaotic Royal Exchange production certainly embraces the cruelty and brutality at the heart of Brontë’s story. But it also channels the tumultuous emotions and elemental forces that have made it such an endearing favourite among audiences.
At times Bryony Shanahan’s heady production strains to demonstrate how different it is from the sundry previous stage and screen adaptations. Andrew Sheridan’s script flits feverishly between Brontë’s beautifully evocative prose and a more anachronistic and profane re-imagining of her words, playfully chucking in Star Wars references and even lines from Kate Bush’s iconic, titular song along the way. But it sticks closely to the central tenets of the novel, sensibly filleting out characters, condensing events and truncating its lengthy time frame.
Around this, the creative team realise Brontë’s moorland world and the fractured mental states of its inhabitants with fittingly wild abandon. Not all of it works. An overly cluttered, artificial-looking set strewn with thicket-spouting mounds and plasticky boulders – providing a trip hazard for all but the most fleet-footed of cast members – is stripped back to provide a rather too literal nod to the withering of the characters’ hopes and dreams in the show’s second half. Meanwhile, Zoe Spurr’s lighting often doesn’t add much to the overall effect.
But the best moments come when the design team unites to produce a totally immersive sensory accompaniment to the unfolding action. Two onstage musicians lend considerable heft to Alexandra Faye Braithwaite’s guitar and percussion-led compositions, which range from delicate, plaintive, folk-infused ballads (featuring haunting vocals with lines drawn from Brontë’s poetry) to floor-shakingly stirring, primal wails of sound. They are at their best when sound-tracking the young Cathy and Heathcliff’s evocatively realised, carefree days on the moors and then ramped up to 11 when Heathcliff struts back into everyone’s lives after his years of exile.
Alex Austin’s adult Heathcliff has the swagger to match the production’s musical highs. It’s a bold choice to play one of literature’s greatest romantic anti-heroes as a preening, Johnny Rotten-esque wide boy, rather the usual tousled, Byronic brooder. His performance won’t be to everyone’s liking but it’s never less than arresting, zeroing in on Heathcliff’s animalistic core in a final hair-raisingly lupine howl of despair. The other men are rather more broadly brushed, but David Crellin brings real tenderness to his comparatively fleeting role as the Earnshaw family’s doting patriarch.
But the production’s greatest asset is its female characters. Rakhee Sharma provides an assured anchor to proceedings as Cathy and nails the character’s tragic descent from gutsy, free-spirited child to frustrated, mentally unravelled wife. Rhiannon Clements brings welcome light relief and deft comic touches as the hapless Isabella.