Wuthering Heights

“We are not going to tell you a story,” the cast disconcertingly warns the audience in the opening minutes of Wuthering Heights. Kate Bush supercedes Emily Brontë as the overarching voice of Peter McMaster’s all-male performance of the novel. This production draws on Heathcliff and Catherine’s story as a capstone reference of contemporary popular culture rather than as a historic literary milestone. Indeed, audience expectation is not pandered to far beyond the novel’s eerie atmosphere of the moors, some candlelit scenes and of course, long flowing dresses.

This layout is somewhat reminiscent of a sporting ring, where the characters each retreat into a corner after meeting one another and confronting new identities on the playing ground of the stage.

As we are seated in the Old Lab at Summerhall, the actors are present on stage, seemingly going through the final stages of preparation for the show that is to come. This announces the most intriguing aspect of McMaster’s play: a breakdown of the conventions of traditional theatre. There is no backstage area: everything happens before our eyes and the boundary between actor and character is obscured. We are explicitly introduced to each of the four actors: their names, hobbies, passions as well as the dreams and aspirations that make them who they are. This is a compelling decision that allows for a staging and exploration of contemporary man in juxtaposition with the furiously passionate fictional masculinity of 19th century Heathcliff. A good quarter of an hour into the performance though, this leaves us wondering when the actual plot is going to commence.

The audience is set out in a square around the stage space. This layout is somewhat reminiscent of a sporting ring, where the characters each retreat into a corner after meeting one another and confronting new identities on the playing ground of the stage. Our presence is very much acknowledged. Indeed, the performance draws the audience in by direct address more than by forging a developed emotional pull. “We love you,” the actors tell us and egg us on to respond to the performance as a crowd rather than as a silent audience.

This ever-shifting role-play gives many a scene the feel of an acting class. Gary Gardiner tends to orchestrate these, instructing the other actors who to play and describing their character traits. In a particularly poignant scene Gardiner coaxes the three other actors into Catherine’s psyche, repeatedly calling them out angrily for their inability to capture the essence of her anguished calls for Heathcliff. This is a remarkable scene that seems to touch upon the frustrating sentimental misunderstandings between genders.

The cast extract a few key scenes from the novel which are enacted with dramatic intensity. Instances of pure symbolism are most powerful, for example when Peter Lannon strips bare of his trousers and shirt before stepping into a floor-length dress and into Catherine’s character. The dress hangs open, unfitting and he is broad, bearded and ginger. Nonetheless he proves a poignant female lead. The visual image of Gardiner holding Lannon is moving: Catherine’s physical presence becomes so much more imposing and empowered than Heathcliff’s and yet she is in his grasp.

While the conceptual work of the performance is intriguing and compelling, the overall impression of the show is that of a fragmented, unfinished work. Indeed at times its comedy verges on pantomime, failing to arouse any cathartic sentiment in the spectator. An elaborate, exaggerated choreography of Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights has symbolic value, but it is lost on the audience that can’t see past the hilarity of four grown men putting their heart into the dance routine. Moreover, the decision of including Heathcliff’s horse, played by Nick Anderson, as a central character that endlessly gallops around the stage, becomes quite tiresome and frustrating when so much of the novel’s more compelling substance is disregarded.

This is more a Brontë-inspired play than a fully fledged version of Wuthering Heights, and thus should perhaps have been titled differently. Although this interpretation introduces a number of interesting concepts and tests the boundaries of conventional theatre, there is a little too much willy-wagging horseplay going on for it to be considered in earnest. The performance leaves us somewhat confused by an amalgamation of familiar yet incongruous scenes in a performance that, although ambitious, is for the most part emotionally unrewarding.

Reviews by Maria Hagan

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The Blurb

Four performers explore their experiences of being men in this bold, award-winning, all male interpretation of Emily Bronte’s seminal text. As they recall the dark expanses of the Yorkshire moors, they sing together, full-throated, and dance optimistically to the howling tones of Kate Bush. They ask, almost 200 years after the book was published, are the aspirations of men very different now? The energy of this brave new performance is not to be missed. 'Honest, inventive, beautifully choreographed and evidence of a bold and distinctive talent' **** (Guardian). ***** (Herald).

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