Emma Rice’s WUTHERING HEIGHTS at the Holland Festival

I have been aware, and a fan, of Emma Rice since I saw her productions many years ago for Kneehigh in the UK of Tristan and Yseult and Brief Encounter and many more since. Her desire, obsession even, to re-interpret well known stories demonstrates an innate talent as theatre-maker. Her desire and ability to take a few paces to the side and view the story from a completely different perspective is her stock in trade. She gets beneath the surface, scraping away the layers until only the fundamentals are left. Her ability to introduce comedy, often throw-away, to highlight the drama can turn an audience’s tears from those of uncontrollable laughter to those of sadness in an instant. So, it is a rare privilege to see an Emma Rice production, an even rarer one to see one here, which luckily one can now do, thanks to the Holland Festival.

Wuthering Heights premiered in October 2021 at the Bristol Old Vic and has been doing the rounds ever since. Performed on an open stage with the actors sitting on chairs at the side waiting for their cues and occasionally providing sound and visual effects, the space is dominated by the projected louring clouds, which is what you’d expect up on’t Yorkshire moors.

The story line remains basically intact, the major innovation being that the chorus/narrator(s) of the book has become a personification of the omnipresent moors themselves, brilliantly and energetically portrayed by the aptly named Kandaka Moore. This was an all singing, all dancing roll which swept us along, ensuring that the production never flagged.

The opening scene with the arrival, in wellies and a deerstalker, of Mr. Lockwood was, for me, almost the best, encapsulating all that was to follow and the closest to the old Kneehigh productions. All the elements were there – the comedy, the drama, the imaginative and totally convincing creation of a storm. Sam Archer was brilliant as the Boy’s Own new tenant but also doubling as the foppish Edgar Linton.

What I found slightly less convincing was the casting of a non Anglo-Saxon actor as Heathcliff, a character I would have considered as quintessentially English as a cup of Yorkshire tea or a glass of flat warm beer. Brazilian Ricardo Castro made a decent enough fist of it and there is no reason why a Liverpool foundling should not be Brazilian, but it didn’t quite ring true, although I could see where the director was coming from.

Lucy McCormack, on the other hand, was well cast as the fiery and troubled Catherine, her big song in the first half being more Janis Joplin than Kate Bush. Her telling line from the piece is “I once dreamt I was in Heaven, but it didn’t feel like home”. A troubled soul is always a troubled soul and there ain’t no redemption from that.

An element which is almost de rigueur these days is the use of puppets. I am not talking here about your conventional hand in a glove, suspended-by-strings puppets. The dog in the opening scene was represented by a canine skull on the end of a stick and all the more menacing because of it. The children were also portrayed by puppets.

This was very much an ensemble piece with, as you’d expect, a lot of doubling. Katy Owen caught my eye, being brilliant and hilarious as the sulky and spoiled Isabella Linton summing up what I said before about Emma Rice’s ability to accentuate drama by the use of comedy. Ms Owen’s cameos provided an occasional chink of light in what is basically a very dark and brooding story and had the best line of the evening, “Sometimes I like to slide down the banister because it tickles my tuppence.”

This was a very long, and often oppressive, show and one wondered at the interval what there was left to say. After the ninety-five minute first half the second part seemed, not exactly an anti-climax, but it lacked the body-blows, and obviously the surprise, of the first.

Visually the production, designed by Vicki Mortimer, was brilliant. Dominated by the projected ever-changing clouds, the small bits of décor – a door, a window, a pile of chairs, a hand-held tree – were wheeled on and off by cast members with the addition of a couple of yo-yo chandeliers. All this was enhanced and highlighted by the beautiful lighting by Jai Morjaria. The onstage music, provided by cello, guitar, bass and percussion was directed by Pat Moran, was an integral part of the emotional roller-coaster as it unfolded before us.

As we all know, love conquers all but not in Wuthering Heights where it is mainly a destructive force. Emma Rice provides in-your-face, take-no-prisoners, total theatre. Miss it if you dare.  Michael Hasted   9th June at the DeLaMar theatre in Amsterdam.

The Holland Festival continues until 1st July