My first Brighton Open Air Theatre was in perfect time for this week’s heat wave, though admittedly the sunny warmth didn’t do much to transport audiences to the harsh Yorkshire moors that famously define Emily Brontë’s classic Wuthering Heights.
Die-hard readers of Wuthering Heights may not find the adaptation they crave
Adapted by April de Angelis, Identity Theatre Company presents a fast-paced crib notes version of Brontë’s novel – a gothic romantic tragedy taught with psychological twists. The story, of course, is driven by the ill-fated love between Cathy (Phoebe Cook) and Heathcliff (Kane Magee), childhood best friends from different sides of the tracks who punish each other over decades for their inability to live happily ever after.
The abbreviated script perhaps holds Magee and Cook back – motivations and interior psychology essential to their characters go obscured as the play hops along at breakneck speed (though still lasts a full two hours). Ultimately the tortured chemistry that defines their famous ruinous romance falls rather flat.
The play was, rather surprisingly considering the dark heart of the novel, at its best in moments of lightheartedness. Magee and Cook come to life with smiles on their faces in flashbacks to their childhood. Meanwhile supporting cast members – Bee Mitchell-Turner as Nelly Dean and Kate Stoner in multiple roles – brought charming energy and humour to the stage.
The play finds its stride in the second act. As darkness fall around the audience and candles light the stage, a different kind of darkness takes hold of the story, and tensions rise. Cook explores Cathy’s madness with physical gusto, and some of the emotional power that was missing in the first act shows its face in Heathcliff and Cathy’s final meeting.
A sparse, open set serves the play well – actors have space to run, dance, fight, and gesture grandly – all requirements for Brontë’s drama. Co-directors Nettie Sheridan and Gary Cook make full use of it well, never concentrating action any one place for too long, and creating clear changes in location with a handful of pieces and props. The addition of live singers to several melancholy scenes was a nice surprise.
The venue itself is lovely and relaxed, a big protruding stage is surround by grassy steps large enough to stretch out on – cheery picnics were spread everywhere. But rocking up fifteen minutes to show time, I quickly learned that it’s probably best to arrive when doors open at 6:30pm to claim an ideal seat – shorter viewers should aim for front row, or perch on the top of the highest level to avoid restricted views.
Die-hard readers of Wuthering Heights may not find the adaptation they crave, and casual watchers may need to accept they won’t quite follow all the action, but the production is full of more laughs and gentle joy than I expected, and those looking for a lovely picnic and a show experience will enjoy immensely.