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Review of Wuthering Heights: A Thrilling and Raucous Theatrical Production

Welcome to the wild and windy moors. Bringing bluster and boisterous charm to the National Theatre, Emma Rice’s production of Wuthering Heights, recently transferred from Bristol Old Vic, bursts into the house.

The gothic classic by Emily Bront is tricky to adapt: The plot is twisty as a gorse bush, and there are many family trees for an audience to understand (in fact, Rice makes the chorus discuss how confusing it all is). Despite that, Rice manages to make the text as lucid as it is, even if the depth of character is sacrificed for the breadth of narrative.

Cathy and Heathcliff’s doomed romance takes up the bulk of the show. Lucy McCormick, best known for her outrageous performance art, portrays Cathy with the right amount of wildness. She stalks the theater like a vengeful ghost with her long blonde matted hair, yowling and snarling through a rock solo that lets her virtuosic voice rip through the Lyttelton. Like Heathcliff, Ash Hunter plays it straight. Rice emphasizes how Heathcliff is othered by the white society around him, and Hunter plays the antihero first with fiery anger and then with steely cruelty.

Although their love for one another seems to defy logic and reason, they never make this strange, turbulent relationship sing. McCormick, a performer who has a unique ability to feel dangerous and unpredictable onstage, seems a bit constrained here. Rice sends her into the auditorium a few times, but she meekly returns to the stage before she can cause havoc (perhaps due to Covid protocol).

Nandi Bhebhe directs the chorus of the moors, who guide the story through Etta Murfitt’s jig-like dance numbers, accompanied by Ian Ross’s folk music. As Isabella Linton, Heathcliff’s future wife, and then as little Linton, his squeamish son, Katy Owen performs like a contortionist and brings a touch of grotesquery to the role (Vicki Mortimer’s costumes contribute a gaudy, green bow to this tiny Fauntleroy atop the dress).

Mortimer’s rustic, malleable design maintains a rapid pace, keeping viewers interested and engaged during the first half, which is densely packed with characters to meet and plot points to pursue. However, Rice has never been able to master acute psychological realism, which shows here, making it harder to care about the various turbulent relationships. Despite all of that, the second half, which is shorter and has less plot to cover, is much defter.

The production is filled with Rice’s distinctive playfulness and OTT spectacle: the ensemble screech when a door is unlocked to the windy moors, and the Linton siblings (as the fussy Edgar Linton, Sam Archer nearly matches Owens’ comic gift), with their powder-puff pink costumes and ostentatious balletic movement, set against the stomping, feral Cathy.

Similarly, the film’s eventual happy ending is tonally abrupt (if self-consciously so), with Simon Baker’s grey projections giving way to a heavenly blue. No doubt, Wuthering Heights is a cumbersome, often explosive theatre piece, but there is something oddly fitting about it.

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