Emily Brontë’s tale of unyielding, wilful love is familiar to many, but this new adaptation at the Rosemary Branch theatre breathes fresh Yorkshire gales into the 19th century novel and sharply evokes the pain of Cathy and Heathcliff’s self-thwarted love.
Cathy (played by Hackney-based actress Lucinda Lloyd) is tempestuous, provocative, child-like – a delight and a nightmare. She haunts the play and Heathcliff, himself conveyed by Jack Benjamin with exactly the right blend of hang-dog forlornness and rough jealousy.
A necessary anchor to the story, loquacious housekeeper Nelly Dean provides the human bridge between different narrative times and strands, conveying the extreme passions of those she cares for. She is both a narrator and a player, as essential to the story as Cathy, or Emily Brontë herself. Emma Fenney is fantastic in this role – sympathetic, busy-bodying and far-sighted.
Cathy and Heathcliff’s at times fraternal, at times sensual (though unfulfilled) love and its increasing elements of jealousy and possession is captured by the moans and jangles of the Yorkshire moors – music composed by Ben Davies especially for the production, which flits through the narrative like the ghost of Kathy and the shadow of Heathcliff’s resentment.
In the book the reader’s sense of time is distorted as Nelly narrates the story through up to three different speakers, going back and forth between her present-day conversation with Lockwood and the past of the Heathcliffs, Lintons and Earnshaws. The continual reinforcement of Wuthering Heights as a story is conveyed in Helen Tennison’s production by the emphasis on reading – as a catalyst for the love of young Catherine and Hareton, a prop in the simple, yet dramatic choreography, and an acknowledgment of the text’s faithfulness to the original.
The sense of time winding onwards, and the intricate interweaving of the family’s fates, seemingly inevitably, often catastrophically, is complemented by the cast changes – George Haynes and James Hayward play up to four characters each, whilst Helen Watkinson doubles up as Isabella Linton and young Cathy.
A story like Wuthering Heights could easily become claustrophobic in the close confines of theatre, but Tennison’s production keeps us engaged through the haunting play of light and shadow, jangling music and the portrayal of Cathy and Heathcliff’s raging love.
Wuthering Heights is at the Rosemary Branch, 2 Shepperton Road, N1 3DT until 27 April.