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Brighton Year-Round 2019

Wuthering Heights

Identity Theatre

Genre: Adaptation, Drama, Live Music, Outdoor and Promenade, Theatre

Venue: BOAT (Brighton Open Air Theatre)


Low Down

Identity Theatre’s new production of Wuthering Heights is co-directed and produced by Nettie Sheridan and Gary Cook – who also provides sound design and graphics. Dena Lague is movement director, Beverley Grover the technical director and lighting operator. Martin Oakley and Andrew Wesby design and build the set with Debbie Creissen assistant director and stage manager. Musical settings of The Unquiet Grave and Low Down in the Broom are arranged from folksongs by the three singers: Helen Toplis, Jo Simpson and Nancy Wesby. Gladrags, Identity and Southwick Players provide the fine costumes.


Identity Theatre’s been scoring palpable hits at Brighton Open air Theatre. Recent productions of The Crucible and Blue Remembered Hills were remarkable for the consistency, vocal quality, vision and almost choreographed way each moves in the open air. Their presenting April de Angelis’ adaptation of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights is no exception.


When not writing original drama, de Angelis famously provides a fresh feminist perspective in her adaptations. Her Sense and Sensibility for instance was mounted last year by Brighton Little Theatre. This sharp, slick re-telling of Emily Bronte’s transcendent masterpiece is hailed as one that concentrates on the whole story and context, rather than just lovers, or the two Cathys. Indeed it does to begin with, though there’s little to delay the essentially retelling over two-and-a-half-hours with interval.


There’s a beautiful addition. Musical settings of The Unquiet Grave and Low Down in the Broom are arranged from folksongs by the three singers: Helen Toplis, Jo Simpson and Nancy Wesby. The Unquiet Grave is one of the great poems of the 15th century, haunting and wholly appropriate. This part-singing brings an earthy immediacy, a gentle grounding in song.


Bee Mitchell-Turner anchors this production in her earthy common-sense, loyal and partly perceptive Nelly Dean, the housekeeper who doesn’t quite appreciate the elemental demons that haunt Heathcliff and the two Cathys. She’s joined by the nicely pompous Andy Bell as Wuthering Heights’ new tenant from London, Mr Lockwood self-preening in his London fashion c. 1801, and his frequent self-congratulatory noises on not being a northern barbarian. Bell’s clarity and prissy bombast is another anchor, both in role and in Bell’s performance.


There’s much scowling as Lockwood’s not admitted by Andrew Wesby’s old Joseph, the surly old religious hypocrite – Wesby’s even managed a swaying walk and captures Joseph’s gleeful spite. Lockwood though is not to be put off. He even fancies the young widow Mrs Catherine Heathcliff née Linton (Carly Tennant) with her keen eyes might fancy him. Still ‘Women are fascinating creatures, but I’ve broken too many ladies’ hearts.’ This blank ignorance extends to a woman beating on his windowpane after he’s managed – with difficulty – to be allowed to stay the night in a snowstorm.


The framing device of Dean and Lockwood counterpoints the narrative neatly in the way de Angelis spaces and invents a few pauses. And in making Lockwood more absurd even than Bronte renders him, allows him a primped-up self-importance   so he’s not quite a cipher.


The wraith at the windowpane is Phoebe Cook’s ardent Cathy Earnshaw, later Linton. It’s very difficult for a non-native to speak with both Yorkshire accent and vehemence, and the pressure on the cast to do this – particularly three of the leads – is considerable. The result is strongly to their credit. Cook clearly pitches her Cathy a fraction below Heathcliff in sheer possession, above him in careering wilfulness, and more wild in her death throes which are here strikingly begun with tearing out a pillow and naming birds.


Cathy and the gypsy foundling from Liverpool her father returns with, Kane Magee’s Heathcliff, is named after a son who died. The actual surviving son Hindley – Harry Armstrong – bitterly resents the intrusion and Armstrong’s burly performance well conveys the boorish terror of being superseded. There’s a treasurable turn as he presents a vapid wife Frances – Kate Stoner, twitteringly delicious in this, a highlight. Stoner elsewhere plays servant Mary in a raucous obverse of that.


The electricity between Cook and Magee is vivifying, as they dance about in red shawl and blue turquoise tunic. Magee seems young for a part he’s appeared in at the start as a man in his forties; but throughout the evening’s flashbacks he grows in stature from awkward defiant boy to an elemental monarch of the moors.


Identity Theatre’s new production of Wuthering Heights is co-directed and produced by Nettie Sheridan and Gary Cook – who also provides sound design and graphics. Dena Lague’s movement direction is key to this production with the two leads performing gestural balleticism. Beverley Grover the technical director and lighting operator really adds to the atmosphere in the increasing gloaming of a summer’s evening slanting from 19.30 to 22.00. Martin Oakley and Andrew Wesby design and build the set. There’s a raised pallet or dais with a coup as Cathy emerges from trap doors – it’s a pity it’s used just once. Various kitchen accoutrements lie nearby but otherwise it’s an uncluttered set using the grass as moorland and general outdoors. Gladrags, Identity and Southwick Players provide the fine costumes. Debbie Creissen’s assistant director and stage manager, as well as ensemble servant.


Armstrong’s Hindley is a fine lumbering realisation and Armstrong’s increasingly appealing as his son 23 years later, Hareton whom Heathcliff had kept in lettered ignorance after his parents’ death and whom the younger Catherine or Cathy begins to harbour feelings for and teach him letters. His transformation from boorish brat to someone worthy of the more refined Catherine is etched in a few convincing scenes.


As his first cousin – they’re all related and the Heathcliff strains dies out – Tennant’s Catherine is as memorable as the excellent Cook, though she has less to do (opening and last third) and less extremes. The fight sequences between her and Magee’s Heathcliff for one thing are strong and she matches her fictive mother for fire, diction and sheer dash.


The Linton family too get a couple of very strong performances from Daniel Walford, first as the effete grey-frock-coated Edgar who marries Catherine Earnshaw, then as the son of Heathcliff and Isabella Linton: a peevish brat, sickly but removing all sympathy in his spiteful self-fixation whom his father contemptuously uses to marry the younger Catherine to snatch her fortune. Heloise Bliss is his unlucky mother, Isabella, sister of Edgar and again moving from society pride to fright-driven bride prepares to strike her new husband when in flight from him. Bliss conveys her desperation for Heathcliff, and her escape; a neat contrast to her heedless snobby self-importance.


Debbie Creissen apart from offstage works appears as servant and ensemble to swell the decidedly rich element of servant relations etched by de Angelis, and culled from the novel. De Angelis has transposed one contemptuous speech of the younger Cathy’s directed at Linton Heathcliff to the elder Cathy castigating Edgar. What she has achieved though is still classic dark romance. The misogyny rippling from Lockwood through Heathcliff to such figures as Linton Heathcliff is foregrounded a little more, as is resistance to it. Class and servant relations are sharpened, usually at Nelly Dean’s expense. Mitchell-Turner’s sovereign calm is as ever a foil to the whirling passions around her (and Bell): Cook, Magee and Tennant shine the brighter for it.


This production never feels too long and on its opening night barely drops in pace throughout. Wuthering Heights is one of those gothic stories that are better than they can ever be played, whoever adapts: such transcendent emotions in the key characters defy nearly all attempts and it’s a huge credit that you don’t cease to believe these actors. Vocally too it’s extremely taxing. De Angelis has chosen fluid storytelling, social and feminist point, and some humour. It’s more vividly mobile than any TV version.


There’s not a weak link though and this production sails effortlessly into a top recommendation for this version. There mightn’t be a finer adaptation at BOAT this year. See it if you can.