Brooding Bronte

Wuthering Heights (shake & stir theatre company)

QPAC, Cremorne Theatre

October 1 – 18

It may seem an ambitious notion to bring Emily Brontë’s classic text “Wuthering Heights” to life on stage, yet in shake & stir’s realisation, this challenge is not only met, but results in a compelling piece of theatre.

This show is enthralling. It is emotional and wrenching and although it is long (running for two and a half hours), it is never dull or lifeless as it faithfully (but not obligingly) retells the sweeping English saga. As a story, it is a dark and passionate tale of regret as experienced by rebellious spirits Catherine (Melanie Zanetti) and Heathcliff (Ross Balbuziente) who, despite being constant companions and powerfully in love, are kept apart by class. The orphaned Heathcliff never recovers from the loss of a love who declares him as ‘more myself than I am’ and, unable to forgive Cathy for choosing the wealthy Edgar Linton (Julian Curtin) as husband, he becomes increasingly bitter before spitefully marrying Linton’s sister Isabella (Nelle Lee).

Like any good show “Wuthering Heights” draws the audience in entirely, to forget about any external markers of time and space as it transforms the Cremorne Theatre into a lucid world. Indeed, from the moment a crack of thunder is heard, and bleak and bitter windy gusts swirl the wild and ghostly Yorkshire Moors to life at the start of Act One, there is evidence of careful and clever staging to ensure that story’s harsh gothic themes are brought to glorious life. As metaphor for Cathy and Heathcliff’s stormy relationship, this is an essential aspect and Guy Webster’s sound design provides a constant sense of the world beyond the stage. The stormy soundscape is enhanced by optikal bloc’s massive projections and Jason Glenwright’s lighting, which juxtaposes the weather-worn moors with the warmth of Linton’s opulent abode.

Wuthering (1)

The balance of power between two strong-willed people is always solid subject matter for playwrights, and you don’t get more strong-willed than the Cathy/Heathcliff pairing. There is a deep love between the two characters, which goes far beyond the normal, romantic love. And it is pleasing to see that this is not a romanticised Hollywoodised retelling of doomed soul mates, but rather, a retelling that is as rough as a saw edge, like its original source.

As tormented, black-tempered and vengeful vagabond Heathcliff, Balbuziente is roguish but far from charismatic, as should well be the case. Balbuziente is one of those actors who works very hard at making what he does seem effortless: revealing nuances in the script and bringing a passive energy to Bronte’s brooding character. He is at times vicious and violent in its savagery, yet also simultaneously smouldering in his sullenness and anguished gushes of grief. And as his giddily counterpart, Zanetti captures the tempestuous nature of Catherine’s character. Her Cathy is spirited, impulsive and thoughtlessly selfish in her increasingly haughty ways and manipulation.

Wuthering (2)

The choice of Gerry Connolly to play the opinionated yet ultimately obedient narrator Nellie Dean, is a strange one, especially given the wealth of talented actresses in this city. Connolly’s frequent dialogue stumbles, attemptedly veiled as character traits, are annoying rather than endearing. Granted, this is a role that requires significant dialogue, often, unfortunately, at the expense of having characters bring their own stories to life.

As with all adaptations, there are important content choices to made in condensing an epic, cross-generational story into a palatable piece of theatre. In this version, the audience is accelerated through Act One, however, once Heathcliff returns from exile, where he has been transformed into civility, only to discover that Cathy has married the more gentlemanly Linton, the show really succeeds, showing the power and passion of the couple’s relationship.

Wuthering (3)

As a tragic tale of desire, jealousy, spite and revenge, the story of “Wuthering Heights” is not an uplifting one. More than romance, it’s an intense deconstruction of social hierarchies and the choices that people are forced to make. It is a credit to adapter/Director Nick Skubij that this bold version is simultaneously able to explore these themes and aesthetically capture the mood of not only the novel, but the words so superbly expressed in Kate Bush’s titular song.

Out On the wiley, windy moors
We’d roll and fall in green
You had a temper, like my jealousy
Too hot, too greedy
How could you leave me
When I needed to possess you?
I hated you, I loved you too

This is “Wuthering Heights” in a nutshell – a story you love of people you know you should hate. And shake & stir have captured the predicament perfectly.

Photos c/o – https://www.facebook.com/shakeandstir

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