Wuthering Heights, Bristol Old Vic and touring

THERE’S nothing predictable about Emma Rice’s productions other than their unpredictability, but for those of us in the South West who saw her development first hand with Kneehigh, before she went national and divided audiences and administrators at Shakespeare’s Globe, her take on Wuthering Heights was bound to be an exciting prospect.

The co-production between her Bristol-based Wise Children company, Bristol Old Vic, York Theatre Royal and the National Theatre, opened at the King Street theatre before its move north and east to standing ovations and whoops of delight. This is classic Rice, sad that it comes on the heels of news of Kneehigh’s demise but assuring fans that the anarchic spirit is still with us.

That spirit is personified by The Leader of the Moor, and nine other Moorish entities as Emily Bronte’s irresistible, dark and menacing Yorkshire moorland takes on a stage life of its own in this new adaptation of the complex story.  In fact, everyone on stage except the actors playing Heathcliff (Ash Hunter) and Catherine (Lucy McCormick), stand in for the barren, craggy, boggy wilderness.

With subtle use of back projections and marvellously inventive prop-making, Etta Murfitt’s movement and Ian Ross’s hugely varied soundscore, there’s hardly a moment of this three-hour play not full of tension, passion and nervous tumult.  Most of those in the audience know the story, but perhaps its twists and turns are a bit hazy.  This version tries to sort them out, never losing the impulsion for powerful storytelling.

Pounding rhythms underline the obsessive passion of the wronged Heathcliff’s revenge and the unhinged Cathy’s appetite for destruction.  But there’s welcome humour from the extraordinary Katy Owen – I can’t get her mesmerising characterisations out of my theatre memory, as Lily in Adolphus Tips, the waitress in Brief Encounter, Mr Ubu in Kneehigh’s Asylum, a sister in Wise Children, The Little Matchgirl …. so many more. Here she is Isabella Linton and the wheedling Little Linton, to devastating effect.

Another Kneehigh regular, Craig Johnson, is the benevolent Mr Earnshaw and the mournful doctor,  with Nandi Bhebhe as the Leader of the Moor, a narrator, advisor and deus ex machina. Sam Archer as Lockwood and Edgar Linton, is the “straight man” of the show – a nice balance against the extravagant unhingedness of the rest of the company.

Tama Phethean is the strong (tall) silent one – both as Hindley and his son Hareton Earnshaw – and with Witney White’s young Cathy lays the ground for the “happy ending” that seemed to offend a few Bronte purists, but certainly not the majority of the theatre audience.

Ash Hunter’s impassioned and driven Heathcliff is the pivot of this fascinating show, with Lucy McCormick’s all-singing, all-hissing and glowering Cathy his whipper-on. She is a magnetic performer, casting her spell over the audience as much as entrancing her adoptive brother.

If anyone thought theatre would come back from COVID cosy and reassuring, this will throw them back to the exhilaration we have come to expect from Tom Morris’s Old Vic and Emma Rice’s Wise Children. It’s on in Bristol until 6th November (with a couple of  live broadcasts) and then in York and London. See it now, if you can get a ticket.


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