Saturday, March 12, 2016

Wuthering Heights - Shake & Stir

Review by John Lombard

A child is treated as a servant by their guardian and mocked by their haughty and foppish "betters", only to scrub up nicely and win the heart of one of the people who derided them. But elevation in fortune has not made the child gracious: winning money and social status was only the first step in a long-stewing revenge plot.

Shake & Stir's new adaptation of Wuthering Heights takes us to the core of Emily Bronte's novel. This is a tempestuous romance, yes. But it is also Cinderella retold as a horror story.

Bronte's notoriously melodramatic story (famously and brilliantly lampooned by Spike Milligan in his retelling) is simultaneously made for theatre and stretching the boundaries of what it can credibly depict. This is a story where a woman sprints onto a moor in a tempest howling for her lover. This is a story where a landlord urges his lodger to keep his door locked at night to prevent the murder he attempts nightly. This is a story that is a catalogue of tropes of gothic romance that were self-parody even in the time of Jane Austen. Even Shakespeare at his most absurdly bloodthirsty is more credible.

But other parts of the story are made for stage, especially some excellent monologues taken from the text. Catherine's "I am Heathcliff" speech in particular has been lurking in English literature waiting for its big moment as an audition piece. The cast also blaze through the story in a brisk but always clear and articulate retelling that pounces from plot point to plot point, distilling a lavish novel to its pure and powerful dramatic arc.

Ross Balbuziente leads the cast as Heathcliff, appropriately apish, wildly sexual in this trysts with Catherine (Gemma Willing). Baluziente takes the character through sullen childhood to vengeful adulthood, slowly learning to express himself like a stumbling Frankenstein learning to walk. Gemma Willing is nothing short of spectacular as Catherine, starting off as a wild child but then making the transition to elegant and bashful lady, but never losing the dangerous intensity and ruthlessness that will always inevitably reassert itself. Tim Dashwood and Nellie Lee are the Lintons, the unlucky brother and sister who stray too close to the Heathcliff-Catherine vortex, and both give strong comic performances (both are attired like villains from Strictly Ballroom) that give way to sympathy for their suffering. Nick Skubij as Catherine's brother Hindley manages to out-monster Heathcliff, and stage veteran Linden Wilkinson acquits herself in the thankless but important role of servant and narrator Nelly Dean. (The novel Wuthering Heights is famous for being a tale within a tale, and the stage production adapts that structure by having Nelly retelling the story but also participating in the scenes she describes)

I left the show thinking that this was an excellent adaptation of Wuthering Heights - with the caveat that this is, unfortunately, still an adaptation of Wuthering Heights. The cast are splendid and the audience's time is never wasted: this is not a Cliff Notes summary, this is a distilling of the novel's essence. Adapter (also director) Nick Skubij has a profound understanding of his medium and deserves a lot of credit for Herculean task of not only successfully taking a classic to the stage, but in some ways finding it its true home. At times, it is ooverwrought - projected close-ups of the actors mouthing passion were sometimes effective, sometimes too pretty and antiseptic to be real. But ultimately this is an exceptional, brilliantly performed piece of theatre, held back only by its faith to its source material.