Wuthering Heights: ‘There comes a point when you have to put the book down’

As the Gate presents a fresh adaptation of Emily Brontë’s classic of passion (or hysterical excess, depending on your outlook), a new Heathcliff and Catherine get to grips with our expectations and their interpretations

They sweep in from the Yorkshire moors together, Catherine and Heathcliff, both a little exhausted and a little exhilarated, but seeming more at ease in each other’s company than they have been for nearly two centuries.

The morning is barely over, but the adopted foundling and the daughter of the Earnshaw manor have already moved from the intimate bonds of childhood to a love so consuming that neither can imagine life without the other. Then came adult betrayal and bitter, callous revenge seeping like poison into new generations. Then, finally, the calm peace in the grave.

Now, though, it's time for lunch, after which the vivacious Kate Stanley Brennan and the strapping Tom Canton will have to do it all over again. Rehearsals for the Gate Theatre's forthcoming production of Wuthering Heights have reached the run- through stage, and the stars of Anne- Marie Casey's new adaptation are beginning to experience the destiny of their characters, playing out their romance, division and supernatural reconciliation for all eternity.

Even those who have never read Emily Brontë’s novel will have some sense of it; the story has been absorbed into popular culture, ceaselessly and sometimes uneasily adapted in film and television, famously transformed into poetry and song. A few years ago the novel topped a British readers’ poll to find the “greatest love story of all time”, an odd accolade for so fevered a depiction of affection and abuse, class struggles, near-incestuous desire and scenes of borderline necrophilia.

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It is a gothic romance, certainly, but that doesn’t quite cover the intensity and brutality of Emily Brontë’s only novel. It is a battle between untameable nature and the genteel strictures of culture, sure, but it is governed by more metaphysical struggles. In short, it’s a novel that means countless things to countless people. What did it mean to its latest interpreters?

Hello Heathcliff

Canton, an English actor who made his professional debut two years ago in the Abbey's A Picture of Dorian Gray, has a talent for adaptations. Last year he played Pip in Great Expectations for Bristol Old Vic and featured in the TV version of PD James's Death Comes to Pemberley, itself inspired by Jane Austen.

Reading the classics has become part of his process. "I had read it in school," he says of Wuthering Heights, unwinding – as much as anyone in 18th-century costume can – on a sofa in the Gate's green room. "I had vague recollections of it. I re-read it for this. It was that 're-reading a classic' sort of thing. My life has changed. I've changed. I got far more out it now than I did when I was a kid."

The classics, as Italo Calvino once put it, are books that people say they are re-reading, never just reading. Kate Stanley Brennan didn’t indulge in any such pretence. “I admitted that I hadn’t read it when I went in for the audition,” she says. “I read [Casey’s] adaptation before I read the book. I wasn’t coming into it with preconceived ideas. I’m able to try and play the truth of our version, which I think is more helpful.”

Casey, who previously adapted Little Women for the Gate, advised Stanley Brennan to read the original to understand the atmosphere of the world. "It's brilliant to have the book to add texture," says Stanley Brennan. "But you have to create a successful piece of theatre. There comes a point when you have to put the book down."

This speaks to the contradiction in literary adaptation, which generally trades on the familiarity of an existing text, but must also assert its own identity. Five years ago, following an annual Christmas cascade of Charles Dickens adaptations, the Gate began staging other tomes – Jane Eyre; Little Women; My Cousin Rachel; Pride and Prejudice – a canny feat of programming that has come to resemble a Christmas book club. The performer, no less than the adapter, must put the book down at some point. But what about the audience? Fans of the novel expect Catherine to desperately yell Heathcliff's name across the howling moors, and they may have a specific Heathcliff in mind.

"I know exactly what you're saying," smiles Canton. "With any classic work of literature, fans of it will have their own mind's image of who those characters are." (A recent, hilarious extension of this phenomenon greeted the casting of Jamie Dornan in the impending Fifty Shades of Grey movie, when unhappy tweeters seized the hashtag #notmychristian.) Canton, a commanding figure with blue eyes and blond hair, has to look the part of Brontë's famous outsider, "a dark-skinned gipsy in aspect", using hair dye and coloured contact lenses.

“This is my Heathcliff and this is my interpretation of who that man is and the choices he makes,” says Canton. “I don’t think it’s helpful to me to be too reverent to an iconic character. I just have to play it how I feel it.”

Stanley Brennan feels similarly. “It would be completely to my ruin if I tried to play to what everyone wanted Cathy to be,” she says. “But I’d say I’m cast because I have Cathy qualities. I feel a real affinity towards her.”

Wuthering Heights pivots on one infelicitous moment, which Heathcliff overhears, when Catherine confides in the servant Nelly that she will marry Edgar, because marriage to Heathcliff would degrade her.

Yet Heathcliff is "more myself than I am" she says. And Heathcliff will say of Catherine, "I cannot live without my life! I cannot live without my soul!" Passion in Wuthering Heights is all-involving, all-consuming and all-destroying. Read it in adulthood and you may blush at its hysterical excess. Read it in adolescence and it can raise the bar for all of life's romantic expectations.

A spiritual decision

Stanley Brennan, who says that Catherine initially “maddened and frustrated” her, finally embraced her character’s contradictions: “She can only make this practical decision [to marry Edgar] because she’s deeply spiritual and truly believes she will be with Heathcliff forever more after this life.”

Both actors speak of the novel’s strange atmosphere being like another character in the play, a presence in Michael Barker Caven’s production that takes shape through abstract design and evocative soundscapes. “It gives you licence to go wherever you want,” says Stanley Brennan.

That has always been the permission granted by Wuthering Heights; to take things to extremes, to slash a poor ghost's wrist on a jagged window pane, to become disfigured with vengeance, to dig up a lover's grave. Heatchliff and Catherine hit such a high pitch so that we don't have to. The same might be said about actors.

“You do have to be careful when you’re doing something that intense,” agrees Stanley Brennan. “If you let it infiltrate the rest of your life, you would go insane.”

It’s not an imagined concern. “I’ve seen people be affected by big roles before,” she says, “letting it get into their heads too much in real life. I’ve seen it too much.”

It sounds exhilarating but unnerving. Brennan puts her hand on Canton’s knee. “Well, we chose this lot,” she laughs brightly, and Catherine and Heathcliff return to rehearsals, ready to love and hate and die all over again.

Wuthering Heights, adapted by Anne-Marie Casey, is at the Gate Theatre until Jan 24

WUTHERING HIGHS . . . AND LOWS

In 1849, the only saving grace that a contemporary reviewer could find in a new novel by Ellis Bell was that “it will never be generally read”. Instead, Emily Brontë’s novel became a jealously guarded classic, whose various adaptations have not generally been well-received. “Don’t do it,” advised one writer to any budding film adapter, despite attempts that date back to 1920, few of which could ever reflect the unique strangeness and violence of the novel’s carefully wrought dream world.

Laurence Olivier played Heathcliff in William Wyler's 1939 film. Since then the role has bounced between brooding heart throbs, from Ian McShane and Timothy Dalton to Ralph Fiennes. An unlikely success came in 1954 with Luis Buñuel's surrealist Abismos de Pasión, inheriting the characters' twisted psychologies and disturbing aggression.

The Gate staged an adaptation in 1934, with Micheál Mac Liammóir as Heathcliff, and, unsurprisingly, the story has lent itself to several opera adaptations.

Still, if you can see the title without hearing Kate Bush trilling her 1978 song in the moors of your mind, you are more impervious to eccentric distillation than I am. (“I love it,” says the Gate’s new Cathy, Kate Stanley Brennan, herself a singer; “No comment,” says Heathcliff, aka Tom Canton.)

Not even the chill poetry of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, who both wrote poems after the novel, could contain the full spirit of Wuthering Heights – but that's the point. Perhaps Cathy and Heathcliff, still ungovernable after all these years, flaring, tormenting and dissolving into one another at every opportunity, could never be confined to a single work.