Review: Wuthering Heights

The moors of Emily Brontë’s novel are raging and unruly, peaceful and polite. Is the new Gate adapation torn between two worlds?

Tamed: Rebecca O’Mara as Isabella and Tom Canton as Heathcliff in the Gate’s adaptation of Wuthering Heights

Tamed: Rebecca O’Mara as Isabella and Tom Canton as Heathcliff in the Gate’s adaptation of Wuthering Heights

 

Wuthering Heights 
Gate Theatre 
***

It is a classic dilemma. Can you indulge the passion of those unbridled years, when a rough and untameable character felt like a kindred spirit, or will you eventually settle for something polished, familiar and ultimately deadening? Such is the predicament of Emily Brontë’s Catherine, divided between the wild, unruly Heathcliff and the refined Edgar; choosing the latter, enraging the former, tormenting the ever after.

Something similar faces the Gate’s new adaptation of Wuthering Heights for the stage, attracted, no doubt, not only by the novel’s Gothic romance, but its otherworldly strangeness, where nature and domesticity are thrown into violent disorder, and romance is stalked by beatings, hauntings and howlings.

Paul O’Mahony’s set, a jagged series of frames and slate-grey rocks, where details flash via Arnim Friess’s video projection, suggests an admirably wild approach. But Anne-Marie Casey’s adaptation, reverent and hurried, is something more polite. Director Michael Barker-Caven seems tugged between those energies, and the production is inevitably uneven.

Retaining the novel’s framing device, which has the bumbling visitor Lockwood (Bosco Hogan) and the earthy, sympathetic housekeeper Nelly (Fiona Bell) as narrators, the production never settles on a theatrical frame. If anything, it seems to follow a shooting script, zipping through locations and images: the hand through the windowpane, Catherine and Heathcliff tumbling through the moors, Catherine desperately calling his name.

Where the adaptation finds something new to say is the suggestion (informed by the critic Terry Eagleton) that the adopted Heathcliff is an Irish Famine refugee. (We first find him, as a child, muttering the Ár n-Athair.) That might lend Heathcliff’s brutalisation – and ensuing brutality – a political dimension, were there room to explore it.

For Tom Canton’s towering and husky Heathcliff and Kate Stanley Brennan’s whirling Catherine, who hope to dissolve into one another in fantasies both romantic and macabre, their onstage relationship becomes, inevitably, a more physical expression. Conveyed in leaps and lifts and laughs and lunges, though, it threatens to tip into parody. That is the peril of a literal approach; it sticks to the the surface of the story, and here, the book’s most pivotal moments – Cathy’s fatefully overheard conversation or Heathcliff’s grave digging – are served unadorned and strangely muted.

More illuminating are the quieter flickers in the background, from Bell’s conscientious observer Nelly, Stephen Swift’s dignified Edgar and, especially, Rebecca O’Mara’s manipulated and abused Isabella. A needlessly glib resolution puts those characters to rest early, as though an adaptation can only accommodate so many tangles. That, though, is Wuthering Heights, raging and ungovernable, and here it settles for less.

Runs until Jan 24