Wuthering Heights

“This is an innovative, modernised portrayal of this classic novel”.

An Oxford Playhouse, China Plate, Inspector Sands and Royal & Derngate Northampton co-production

It’s been very many years (decades!) since I’ve read Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, and probably a good few years since I’ve seen an adaptation, so I arrived at the wonderful Oxford Playhouse with a rusty knowledge of the book, and intrigued. 

Firstly, the welcome as ever by the front of house staff at the Playhouse was fabulous. Always helpful, their staff and volunteers always get an evening off to a great start.  There were no programmes for this production, although you could buy scripts.  We settled into our seats with a sense of trepidation, not really knowing what to expect.

The set was stark, and we already had a sense of the world at Wuthering Heights and the Yorkshire Moors. The sound of eery birdsong as the audience assembled, added to that, along with the misty lighting. The scene was definitely set.

The action took place on both levels of the set, the main level, mostly Wuthering Heights itself, on the stage, and some of the action taking place on a constructed balcony. The Moors and Thrushcross Grange, all effortlessly portrayed, in this single set, with the use of lighting, sound effects and a sliding ladder. At the centre of all of this, the farmhouse kitchen table, mostly the domain of housekeeper Nelly. 

This cast of just 6, worked fantastically together. Aside from Giulia Innocenti as Nelly (Ellen) Dean, they all played multiple characters, and all played those characters at different ages, showing huge depth and abilities. It was a true ensemble cast, without a weak link. Well done to all of the cast of Leander Deeny, John Askew, Giulia Innocenti, Lua Bairstow, Ike Bennett, Nicole Sawyer and also to director Lucinka Eisler and writer Ben Lewis, who both devised and produced this.

Narrator Nellie was definitely the glue holding everything together, and Giulia’s characterisation was at times reminiscent of Victoria Wood, but she stayed the right side of caricature. 

This is an innovative, modernised portrayal of this classic novel. So, whilst most of the costumes and set had elements of the late 1700’s, they all had modern twists; jeans and t shirts for some characters, a superman dress-up cape for young Edgar Linton, Catherine’s short haircut, and so on. By contrast, Nelly was costumed in classic housekeeper’ style throughout. 

Along with the costumes, and look of the production having a modern twist, the script also added some in;  two short refrains of “I Want It That Way” by the Backstreet Boys sung quietly by a couple of characters, one similarly short refrain from Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive”, a bit of (I would say, given the themes) appropriate swearing, the use of voices in microphones both on and off stage, to create atmosphere, and so on. Themes such as domestic abuse, slavery, mental illness, were all well explored. It's certainly not an easy watch at times, although there was a welcome amount of humour, alongside the bleakness, including a lovely section with Nellie chopping veg!. 

This production definitely portrayed the brutality of life at Wuthering Heights, and the tragedy was very well told. It is great to see more of these co-productions between theatres and theatre companies too. Shared resources and experience that produce high quality drama such as this, must be applauded.

This production was reviewed on the 10th May 2023 at Oxford Playhouse where it runs until the 13th May 2023.  Tickets available here: Wuthering Heights | Oxford Playhouse

Review written by Ruth Hawkins

Photo credit: Alex Brenner

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