Adapting any classic English literary work for the stage requires the exercise of a high degree of skill and careful finessing. It’s a delicate balancing act, ensuring the beauty and power of the rich source text is preserved, but delivered to today’s audiences in a theatrical presentation that ensures its author’s intentions are realised as effectively now as with a contemporary readership.
Any re-working or updating of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights is a challenging proposition. It’s a complex, 34-chapter gothic tale, signposted by a plethora of significant events that must be retained to ensure central themes remain and also purely for the sake of clarity.
Queensland’s shake & stir theatre co has succeeded in staging an adaptation of Wuthering Heights that, on the whole, brings characters to life that are true in their nature to those described on the pages of Bronte’s novel. However, the actors have varying degrees of success in their efforts to render the levels and range of emotions their characters are required to convey.
Set over the last 30 years of the eighteenth century, Wuthering Heights has at its core the love story between Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff. Heathcliff is a homeless gypsy Catherine’s father brings home, and adopts and raises as his own son. While the pair becomes close soon after Heathcliff’s arrival at Wuthering Heights – the Earnshaw family’s moorland estate in northern England’s Yorkshire county – Catherine’s chance encounter with Edgar Linton, a well-to-do young man living on a neighbouring property sees her come to reject the notion of marrying Heathcliff, in favour of a union with Edgar. It’s that decision that ultimately serves as the catalyst for a series of terrible events that subsequently unfold.
Gemma Willing’s Catherine Earnshaw possesses the crucial qualities of Bronte’s character. She comes across as free-spirited, wild-natured and also spoilt and bad-tempered. But there are moments in Act I where she seems to slip out of character momentarily. Fortunately, Willing is at her strongest in delivering Earnshaw’s decline at the end of that first half. Her reappearance in the second half as young Catherine Linton is a performance that offers more consistent strength. Playing the child, she brings the audience a character that shares her mother’s stubbornness, but is slightly gentler and more sensitive to the circumstances of those around her. Willing effectively carves out two distinct characters.
Ross Balbuziente’s Heathcliff is suitably cruel and vindictive, but his delivery of lines sometimes seems disconnected from the text. Funnily enough, it’s an injection of passion into that delivery that’s needed to enhance the persuasiveness of his characterisation, particularly during Act II. As an audience, we miss a stronger sense of Healthcliff’s passionate obsession with Catherine. It’s not until the show’s final moments that the fact of that passion becomes abundantly clear.
Tim Dashwood’s Edgar Linton is precisely what the character is on paper – a civilised but ultimately weak gentleman. And Nick Skubij (who’s also taken on the duties of director and adaptor for this production) is strong as Hindley Earnshaw – Catherine’s bitterly jealous brother, who shows early on he’ll never be fit to be master of the house – and later as the neglected Hareton Earnshaw, the son of Wuthering Height’s original master.
Theatre stalwart Linden Wilkinson is a standout as Nelly Dean, the Earnshaws’ housekeeper from whose perspective the entire tale is told. Hers is a supremely confident performance (despite a few line flubs) that, from the outset, establishes a solid base for the production. Dean is compassionate, but is she a bystander to, or an enabler of, the action that unfolds? Seeing her as the latter stops Nelly from being a terribly sympathetic character.
The other standout here is Nelle Lee, who impresses in each of the guises she assumes over the production’s 2½ hours. As Isabella Linton, she is perhaps Wuthering Heights’ most sympathetic player, devoid of the least desirable qualities that characterise those around her, and eventually managing to remove herself completely from this terrible Yorkshire county fold. When Lee returns in Act II as Linton Heathcliff, she’s remarkably convincing as Heathcliff’s 13-year-old son.
Josh McIntosh has designed a set of sizeable scale that evokes a strong sense of place for Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange. Maximum use of the entire space is made throughout the performance. The set is complemented by a thoughtful and restrained use of lights by Jason Glenwright. His dark design precisely mirrors the mood of the piece, and particular commendation is deserved for the lighting choices made for scenes at Wuthering Heights in Act II. Coupled with subtle wind effects that prompt gentle movement of the drapes, the blue tones lighting the house create a strong sense of a property in a state of gradual decay (alongside its inhabitants).
Visually, the only questionable choice is the incorporation of projections into the piece. Projections show the faces of central characters expressing a variety of emotions at various points in the story. While it’s a visually striking device, many of the actors’ expressions seem overwrought. One wonders whether, despite the melodramatic aspects of the novel itself, it’s all a little too ‘Bold and The Beautiful’ for Bronte’s gothic world. It also has the tendency to amplify moments in some of the principal actors’ performances when their emotional intensity live on stage falls short. Projections perhaps could have been used more sparingly, in order to effectively punctuate the drama, rather than the too-frequent use to promote the overall design.
Fans of the novel should be aware there’s some departure from the source text at points. Mr Lockwood, the principal narrator of Wuthering Heights, makes no appearance on stage here. There’s also an occasion early on in the show when we hear Heathcliff respond to another character using the ‘f’ word. And the show’s ultimate dramatic climax differs from the ending written for the novel.
Regardless, Shake and Stir’s Wuthering Heights is a brave endeavour to bring Bronte’s classic to 21st century Australian audiences. Her exploration of love, hate and revenge, told through the tales of these gothic characters, is timeless and warrants conservation through this generation and beyond.
Shake and Stir’s Wuthering Heights is currently on a national tour that includes several stops in New South Wales, Victoria, Tasmania, the Northern Territory and concludes back in Queensland on 19 June. For full tour details, click here.