The National Youth Theatre’s new production of Wuthering Heights is neither a traditional production, nor a complete departure – it is somewhere in between the two, as the play itself takes place somewhere in between our world and the next, between the eighteenth century and the twenty-first. The play is ‘a kind of wish-fulfilment’, according to Street, a re-imagining of what might happen if Cathy’s ghost returned to Heathcliff when he digs up her grave.
Catherine and Heathcliff’s souls sit together in this spiritual limbo and look back on their past, giving them the opportunity to do what they never could in the novel – explain themselves. Different actors play (the living) Catherine and Heathcliff throughout the production, symbolising the way both characters change as the story progresses – sometimes the change takes place at an odd moment in the narrative, which is disconcerting, but generally this simple device works well.
Although the production is based on close reading of the text, and incorporates a few direct quotations, most of the dialogue is a modern approximation of the dialogue in the novel. At times, this works really well, making it easy for us to relate to the characters, but it is a shame that Bronte’s famous lines are never used – especially as many of them are not noticeably archaic, and would have fit in with the play’s dialogue.
The staging is fairly minimalist, consisting only of a mound of dirt and a few props which are produced from it, and an opaque veil at the back of the stage. This makes sense in the [limbo] where Heathcliff and Catherine [are], and the dirt is used throughout the performance in a variety of different ways, playing on Bronte’s emphasis on the earth and nature in the novel. This is played off against a lot of references to the stars and space – although the themes contrast nicely, it sometimes feels like these moments try too hard to be intellectual or poetic.
Despite only running for ninety minutes, the production covers a lot of ground and manages to give nuanced portrayals of most of the characters – Hindley, especially, is not reduced to a villain, but is instead painted as a loving husband who fails to deal with his grief and spirals into debt and drunkenness. The acting all round is first class – Feetham is especially good as Nelly, while each of the four Catherines and Heathcliffs brings something of their own – whether comedy or passion – to the role.
As the scenes play out, the different motivations behind Catherine and Heathcliff’s actions are explored, and the two characters begin to understand one another’s behaviour, although at times something we have already taken for granted is presented as a shocking revelation, and those who are very familiar with the novel may be disappointed at the lack of deeper exploration. There are a few elements of the production which feel distinctly amateur, but on the whole, this an impressive attempt to capture Wuthering Heights for a modern audience, and it showcases the talent of the National Youth Theatre’s cast and crew.