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Brighton Festival 2022

Low Down

Directed by Emma Rice, Designer Vicki Mortimer, Sound and Video Design Simon Baker, composition by Ian Ross, Lighting Design by Jai Morjaria and Movement and Choreography by Etta Murfitt.

The live band Sid Goldsmith, Nadine Lee and Renell Shaw.

Till May 21st


Theatre of Cruelty? Blast from the future? New tenant Lockwood’s buffeted by wind like a sapling as he visits his landlord at Wuthering Heights. Who encourages a savage youth to set a dog on him, three times. Then a wraith at a window whose wrists Lockwood slices on glass, emits red ribbons of blood and vanishes to the landlord’s fury. But there’s a housekeeper. Expect stories. Wuthering Heights hits Brighton’s Theatre Royal for the Festival.

Emma Rice and Wise Children reimagine Emily Brontë’s novel as physical theatre, rock-opera, puppet-theatre (which fades) a musical with the heft of Les Mis – set in almost the same period here – if not the tunes, dancing and Greek tragedy with a twist. As a Brechtian chalked lintel-post proclaims, it’s post 1847 (year of publication, not the 1765-1802 setting). By turns epic, comic and an almost-musical it’s a must-see.

Don’t expect deadly theatre, straight adaptation, though that’s there too, faithful retelling mostly in Brontë’s language behind the theatrics. There’s a wealth of added dialogue, one-liners to punctuate this two-hours-forty spectacle with laughs.

Wuthering Heights is a masterpiece of extremes, the kind of work Antonin Artaud should have adapted. It can take anything but tepidity, faithfulness. Gothic doesn’t begin to describe it, nor tragedy, with such bleak transcendence and triumph at the end as the boiling catalyst of Heathcliff expires, leaving family lineage as it might have been without him. But with the bitter precipitate of passion.

The live band’s onstage throughout and deserve their curtain call. Sid Goldsmith, Nadine Lee and Renell Shaw on guitar, cellos, drums. Composition’s by Ian Ross, a moor-thundering unmemorable rock-opera score conveying choric intensity without drawing attention to its themes.

It’s accompanied by a Greek chorus led by The Moor (in effect Housekeeper Nelly Dean): Nandi Bhebhe – recently from Rice’s Bagdad Café; though this scenario invokes memories of the shape-shifting Greek chorus in Kae Tempest’s Paradise (adapting Sophocles’ Philoctetes) at the National last year. Hair shrubbery though, is new, and Bhebhe warm with infuriating foresight heads a trio of head-shrubbers impelling people gently into death; a quietly magical touch from the kindly ones.

Heathcliff, Cathy and Hindley are at first children puppets, like the dog launched by cast members. Lucy McCormick later plays adult Cathy in gyring pigtails, whirling muddy gown and Doc Martens. Her deadly grey lady’s dress slow-burns like a shift of Nessus. After her transfiguration in Part Two she sports smudges round the eyes like a banshee.

Here’s vehemence in the love of Cathy and Heathcliff but here it’s sometimes no more than that. McCormick’s terrifically all-out and this production gives her few places of repose that even Brontë gives Cathy. Her confessional to Nelly Dean ‘it would degrade me to marry Heathcliff now’ which he overhears, and after he leaves ‘I am Heathcliff’ explode at the same tempo; as if there’s so much to get through Rice doesn’t let the pace eddy.  It’s a thrilling performance though and congruent with Cathy’s rock-chick grab of a mic, singing of catastrophe as you do on the Moors.

Stand-out is Katy Owen in her two roles: first Isabella Linton, beautifully shocked into sexual attraction, something on her mind as she raises one of the greatest laughs from the company’s added dialogue: ‘Sometimes I like to slide down the banister because it tickles my tuppence.’ Brontë wouldn’t mind. Owen’s strips Isabella’s comic affectations to a core of marital abuse and terror.

As repellent mewling Linton Heathcliff Owen strides almost sideways into comic bliss, a horrible mix of pathos, soured invalid and selfishness. Owen jerks like a puppet and jabs at our contempt.

Tama Phethean who whirls Owen upside down, retrieving Linton for Heathcliff, is extremely persuasive. As Hindley Earnshaw and his son Hareton he mixes physical theatre – especially in Hindley’s violence and Hareton’s glowering – with mutely eloquent sulks.

Rice’s adaptation scores heavily in Phethean’s Hindley, far more present here than Hindley often is. He savagely kicks smaller Heathcliff, who’s unable to fight him. The engine of cruelty, Heathcliff’s increasingly vicious on his return, as if Hindley’s ghost enters his already ferocious grudge-bearing. ‘Revenge’ is a word Heathcliff repeats. Phethean enjoys Hindley’s decay too, staggering with a bottle.

As Hareton Phethean enjoys a mute stunted power, drawn out gradually by Catherine, far more prone to epic gesture, puppet dogs and pulling punches, grudging into a new tenderness. The couple make a sunburst of the show’s end.

Liam Tamne’s Heathcliff has presence and  – inhabiting the Indian accent Brontë suggests in the outsider – a nodal point round whom the giddy axials of two families spin; a straight in a commedia dell’arte. It both isolates him as outsider but empowers him like dark matter towards whom both families collapse. Only vocally not everything’s clear, over the music. But Tamne manages the unusually-drawn transitions: flinching youth and skulking outsider, as well as the better-known paradigm, here notably brutal.

Witney White’s southern, painfully ailing and silly Frances Earnshaw might be a small role, but she brings similar parodic skills to Owen in Isabella and Linton, if on a far smaller scale.  It’s a tiny gem. By contrast her Young Cathy blasts in and out as a more joyful intimation of what could have been.

Lockwood’s Sam Archer – for the most part Edgar Linton – brings unenviable priggery to life: the tenant’s frit conventional mien. As Edgar he’s a man whose veneer cracks under Heathcliff’s gale like the one buffeting Lockwood. He’s allowed tender moments with Catherine (if decidedly not with Cathy), one of few reposes.

Craig Johnson’s first warm, avuncular, catastrophic Mr Ernshaw and a comic turn as green-hat-banded and gloved Dr Kenneth. Prone to TMI addressing the fourth wall, Kenneth revels in visiting the madhouse as Rice builds his part to a commentary on visiting death.

There’s dizzying work by Mirabelle Gremaud (swing), TJ Holmes (Robert, the glum servant), Jordan Laviniere’s John, even surlier, and Kandaka Moore’s Zillah.

Vicki Mortimer’s set almost dances too (see below!), as a colony of chairs out of Ionesco glimmer at the edges, tower in mute mountains with scaling ladders used by Heathcliff and Cathy, and whisked away perpetually. Window panels whirl round for people to glare behind, distinctly pre-fab; and a larger door with dog-flap for a puppet. Period gestures arrive in women’s early 19th century dresses, with blue-shot greys and patterns contrasting with the sober ochres and dun of the men; and Heathcliff’s return in a stark white frock-coat.

Most striking is Simon Baker’s video design, black-and-white with nods to films, with grey-scale clouds perpetually scudding, birds starting away every time there’s a death.  He’s responsible for the sound too, where voices usually if not always rise above gales and drums.

Lighting by Jai Morjaria brightens and darkens like more scudding clouds, though much is steady interior. Movement and choreography by Etta Murfitt is one of those key factors here: all the whirl of moving props, the dances – formal, wild – are the essential fabric of this show.

One beat is surprisingly lost: Heathcliff relinquishing power. In the novel he’s spent, looks on Catherine and Hareton’s romance with indifference. Nearly all of that post-dates his death here, and we lose that letting-go towards Cathy, an immanence that marks Heathcliff a great creation in a towering novel, often cited as the greatest in English. It underscores this adaptation as not penetrating the heart of Heathcliff’s mystery, though capturing so much else.

Perhaps ten or fifteen minutes too long, ironically this show could benefit from a few existential pauses, Heathcliff’s relinquishing the most telling. If the music stops just a few times, epic emotions sink in.

Programmes bring closure too. The scan on the card provided didn’t work, and this reviewer had to scramble online to find just names. No actors’ or creatives history does them a disservice. Instead of a laminated pretty card a simple folded A4 paper would be even friendlier to the environment, and provide us with the bare minimum.

But a show you must see.