Emma Rice calls Wuthering Heights a tragedy in this show’s programme, but her production could easily be classed as a comedy or pastiche of Emily Brontë’s brooding novel – or even a folk musical, with its live band and sudden bursts of song. Either way, the book’s dark, gothic heart has been extracted and in its place is audacious theatricality and raging camp.
It could, in fact, all be a theatrical wind-up, from the moment Lockwood is tossed by a storm to the foot of Wuthering Heights, in remotest Yorkshire, with the help of a hand-held tree, actors screeching the sound effects of the wind and a back projection of a gloomy sky (video design by Simon Baker).
Rice’s adaptation is characteristically meta in its display of artifice: the facade of Wuthering Heights is just that, a flat moved around by backstage staff (set design by Vicki Mortimer). The Yorkshire moors are human – fittingly for a story in which they are such an animate feature – and appear as a Greek chorus led by Nandi Bhebhe, fresh from Rice’s Bagdad Cafe, who wears shrubbery in her hair and is marvellously arch.
In childhood, Heathcliff, Cathy and Hindley are puppets. Lucy McCormick then plays Cathy as a knotty-haired rebel in Doc Martens who twitches, growls and laughs manically. She breaks into “rock chick” mode at one point with a mic and wind machine, part singing, part yodelling, while the live band (Sid Goldsmith, Nadine Lee and Renell Shaw) creates heavy metal sounds.
Lockwood (Sam Archer) is a posh southerner in wellies, while Isabella (Katy Owen) and Edgar Linton (Archer, doubling up), from the well-to-do Thrushcross Grange, are dressed in foppish outfits and twizzle around their living room as if their life is one long ball, with Isabella speaking fabulous lines like: “Sometimes I like to slide down the banister because it tickles my tuppence.”
Owen also plays young Linton (Heathcliff’s son by Isabella), who is the incarnation of Walter the Softy from the Beano. She is a standout comic force in both roles along with Tama Phethean, who plays Hindley and Hareton with a mix of physical comedy, pathos and kookiness.
It all seems ingenious and faintly ridiculous, like a postmodern literary satire or an especially outré episode of Inside No 9 and risks having nowhere to go beyond tripping one-liners and theatrical navel-gazing. But it builds its world, albeit a conspicuously artificial one, and holds us in it with an intensity of its own, and there is beauty, with the vast backdrop of sky changing from black cloud to haze and then to soft, bouncing blue.
Some innovations feel sacrilegious; the all-consuming love between Cathy and Heathcliff – the beating heart of Brontë’s novel – is neutered here and when Cathy says “Heathcliff is more myself than I am”, it does not seem powered by passion but theatricality.
Heathcliff (Ash Hunter) does not smoulder, but he does skulk and seems like the only character being played straight. He is emphatically an outsider, speaking with a Caribbean accent and told to “Go back where you came from” by Hindley, his words carrying all their modern-day connotations. He grows more vicious too, and with this the drama manages to capture some of the dark energy of the book in its presentation of cruelty, grudge-bearing and beatings. Heathcliff’s physical and emotional abuses appear shocking and destructive, even in this landscape of whimsy.
Ultimately, the show succeeds because it is not just very funny, but both charming and intelligent in its humour. If this is unfaithful storytelling, it is exquisitely pulled off.