Brontë’s iconic novel Wuthering Heights is considered one of the greatest love stories of the Gothic era. Full of pained brutality, impassioned romance, forbidden matches and then concluding with bouts of madness, it epitomises both the Gothic genre and engages with the tumultuous relationship between man and the nature found in Yorkshire’s desolate moorland.
Portraying the now timeless love of protagonists Cathy and Heathcliff, I expected this production to engage primarily with the romance of the tale. However, somewhere within Bryony Shanahan’s direction, there appeared to be an absence of love, let alone the great love that Brontë originally wrote, within the chemistry of the two leads in Alex Austin and Rakhee Sharma.
The first half opened to the introduction of a young and somewhat barbaric Heathcliff, adopted by the elder Earnshaw into his young family, compromised of siblings Cathy and Hindley. Engaging with the playfulness of the characters at this age, Austin embodies the ferality of Heathcliff in the face of a new environment. Nevertheless, the performance feels slow and somewhat lacking across the board, with the characters never fully engaging with the audience. Sharma’s portrayal of Cathy was by far too much; she presented Cathy as a permanently aggressive individual who doesn’t ever seem to let up from the chip on her shoulder.
This portrayal of Cathy in the first half made both the character and the production totally un-relatable to the audience. Paired with the somewhat dismal portrayal of Yorkshire as a purely backwards and barbaric county, with little room for much else, I was beginning to find this production especially distasteful. As a Yorkshire-woman, the rough-round-the-edges accents were forced at best, and at one point, I remember feeling almost offended that this is all Yorkshire, and the great Brontë text, could be perceived as. It felt very much like a Londoner’s portrayal of The Moors; unrealistic, one-dimensional and with a southern naivety which is certainly not present in the original text nor in the spirit of those of us that are familiar with the environment.
A distinct lack of structure also made it almost impossible to track the ageing of the characters. At times, Hindley especially was a web of confusion to the audience. In a particularly graphic scene involving a fox, it wasn’t clear whether he was supposed to be a child pretending to be an adult or an adult with a childish mentality. Moreover, the incessant and crude display of violence, almost constantly in the first half of the production, felt forced and unnecessary. The strongest and most evocative moments resonated when there was no dialogue at all.
Nevertheless, Cécile Trémolières’ set mirrored the environment of the desolate and wild moors in a far more understated and delicate way. Despite being paired with an excellent musical score by Alexander Faye Braithwaite and ethereal lighting by Zoe Spurr with which the atmosphere of the production was hinged, the first half of the production was barely salvageable.
In the second half, we see the performances of Rhiannon Clements as Isabella and Samantha Power as Nelly shine through alongside Alex Austin’s cockney, byronic Heathcliff, recently returned from London having made his fortune. Nelly becomes the empowered leading female in this production rather than Cathy, and there very much feels as though the multi-faceted portrayal that Brontë first envisioned in Wuthering Heights’ conception has been totally ignored.
At long last, in the almost final moments, Cathy’s madness and the tragedy of this iconic love story is brought to its conclusion in a powerful and utterly spellbinding way. But I’m not all that sure that Brontë’s great love story can really exist without the great love between Cathy and Heathcliff.
Wuthering Heights runs at the Royal Exchange Theatre until the 7th of March.