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Wuthering Heights - Royal Exchange Theatre

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by David Keyworth (subscribe)
I’m a freelance journalist and published poet, based in Manchester. My debut poetry pamphlet is available at
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Born to be wild
With the country caught between two storms - and regions like West Yorkshire once again repairing flood damage - the Royal Exchange is taking theatre-goers out of the cold to a new dramatisation of Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights.

Theatre, Manchester, Royal Exchange Theatre, Emily Brontė, Wuthering Heights, Rakhee Sharma
Rakhee Sharma (Cathy) & Alex Austin (Heathcliff) - image Helen Murray

With the stage set out like a badly maintained allotment, with a tin bath in the mix, we and Earnshaw - played by David Crellin (Royal Exchange There Is A Light) - first encounter Heathcliff as a street child, hunched and grunting like an lost, frightened dog.

Earnshaw takes this feral child to the 'black rocks of Penistone Crags' and to the family home - Wuthering Heights. The boy is given the same name as Earnshaw's son who died in infancy - Heathcliff.

Theatre, Manchester, Royal Exchange Theatre, Emily Brontė, Wuthering Heights, Rakhee Sharma
Wuthering Heights - David Crellin(Earnshaw) - image Helen Murray

It is clear from the outset that domestic life at Wuthering Heights is going to be intense. In one scene, Heathcliff is nearly drowned in a bucket by the jealous, bullying Hindley (Gurjeet Singh).

That said, just when the emotional atmosphere, as well as the lighting, gets too dark - and threatens Cold Comfort Farm type melodrama - there are humorous moments interlaced through the gloom.

Dean Fagan (who left Coronation Street in 2018, as one of Pat Phelan's victims) has fine comic timing as Edgar Linton - a representative of the moneyed and fashionable class of the era. He is the antithesis of Heathcliff's unvarnished honesty but also not as guilty of Heathcliff's instinctive hostility to outsiders and anyone new.

Samantha Power (Nelly) - image Helen Murray
Wuthering Heights - Dean Fagon (Edgar) - image Helen Murray

Rakhee Sharma combines, in her performance, Cathy's wild-as-long-grass heart but also her adult acceptance of compromise. In contrast, Alex Austin's Heathcliff grows into an adult who is a lethal mixture of campness, cruelty, volatility and ungovernable passions.

Manchester, Royal Exchange Theatre, Emily Brontė, Wuthering Heights, Rakhee Sharma
Rakhee Sharma (Cathy) - image Helen Murray

Andrew Sheridan, who acted in Blindsided at the Royal Exchange, has written a script that is at its most effective when it distills into sharp dialogue the conflicts between reason and emotion and the social and economic tensions between the nineteenth-century world of factory versus farm. The action takes place between the emerging industrial cities of Leeds and Manchester.

The conflicts over territory, particularly between Heathcliff, Hindley, and Linton at Wuthering Heights, are reminiscent of the dynamics of Harold Pinter's plays like The Caretaker.

Even so, despite the skills of director Bryony Shanahan and others involved, there are inevitably times where the dialogue has to cover a lot of pages - so that those of us who have not read the novel don't lose the plot.

The scenes before the interval felt in danger of getting shackled by exposition no matter how hard the creative team tried to avoid it.

The live music by Sophie Galpin and Rebecca Wilkie has lyrics which nicely echo the rural and avian imagery of the dialogue. The music - perhaps best described as folk-rock - injects extra energy and allows the actors to use movement and not just spoken word.

But given how hard Designer Cécile Trémoličres worked to evoke the moorland world, it does seem jarring to see an electric guitar on stage but it is a minor quibble.

Theatre, Manchester, Royal Exchange Theatre, Emily Brontė, Wuthering Heights, Rakhee Sharma, Rebecca Wilkie, Sophie Galpin
Rebecca Wilkie & Sophie Galpin - image Helen Murray.

Seeing the whole of Wuthering Heights in one sitting (with an interval) is a challenge because, unlike with a novel, we cannot put it down come back to it later and listen to a Kate Bush album instead or indulge in any other type of distraction.

Having never read the novel, I can't comment on how far the play stays faithful to or diverges from or shines any new light on Emily Bronte's story.

Overall, this production is more evidence, if it were needed, of how a piece of writing can outlive the era and form it was created in and continue to inspire artists from other disciplines.

It is only to be hoped that both theatre producers and we as audience members, don't just opt for book adaptations, to the detriment of original plays, because it is the safer option when it comes to investing our time and money. Wuthering Heights - published in 1847 - was once itself a controversial new work of art, by a new writer.

: Theatre, Manchester, Royal Exchange Theatre, Emily Brontė, Wuthering Heights, Rakhee Sharma
Anne, Emily and Charlotte The three Brontė sisters, in an 1834 By Branwell Brontė - Image from www.knowledgerush.comUploaded by Mr. Absurd., Public Domain,

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Why? Raw, pacey and naked version of Wuthering Heights with laughs
When: 7 February - 7 March 2020
Phone: 0161 833 9833
Where: Royal Exchange Theatre, St Ann's Square, Manchester
Cost: Standard Tickets from £19. for concessions and discounts
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