Wuthering Heights: “much to commend”

Jessica Harris enjoys this production during the Young Rep Company’s Love & Rebellion Festival.

Staging a production of Wuthering Heights would be a challenge for most theatres. For a youth theatre company such as the Young Rep to do so on one of the largest stages in the country in a production which, according to the programme, has been re-contextualised to the Black Country in the 1990s is even more of a challenge.

Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights is full of complexity and its central characters highly enigmatic. Cathy and Heathcliff have a deep passion for one another and yet seem bent on mutual destruction, Heathcliff driven by a thirst for revenge and Cathy by the clash between her social ambitions and her wild nature.

The Young Rep’s production makes good use of the large stage. The set is an interesting array of tiers that provide a range of interiors and exteriors as the backdrop for action. Props representing cable drums, tyres and other industrial paraphernalia are moved around by the cast to indicate a change of scene. Use of space and movement is well considered, and the physicality of many of the cast adds depth to their performance.

Central characters have both a young version and an older version. Liz Gaynor as the young Cathy Earnshaw gives a lovely portrayal of unruliness and passion. Her voice is strong and her command of the stage impressive. Jess Wood as the young Heathcliff is convincingly dark in her playing of his brooding and devious character. Both Heathcliff and the Earnshaw children have experienced brutalisation to different degrees, Heathcliff through his background of poverty and neglect, Hindley Earnshaw at the hands of his father, and Cathy at the hands of Hindley. Scenes of bullying and sadism expressing this are disturbing and effective.

Haleema Nasir plays the adult Cathy with conviction. Episodes of growing tension between her and Heathcliff are well delivered, and the inner conflict between her love for Heathcliff and her desire for wealth and status is played with authenticity. From a somewhat understated start, Ibrahim Ibrahim as the adult Heathcliff grows into the role, finishing with a portrayal which is forceful and compelling.

There were issues of audibility in the Rep’s large auditorium , with some cast members not yet fully proficient in voice projection. Screens with subtitles on either side of the stage enabled the dialogue to be followed when voices didn’t quite carry.

The script itself seems undecided about relocating the story to the Black Country. Other than a couple of references to Birmingham and Coventry, its frequent references to the moors and heather-covered hillsides suggested an intention to stay true to Brontë’s novel where the landscape is symbolically significant, and where a haunted gothic tone is set through the isolated Wuthering Heights farmhouse, the desolate moors and the ever-threatening weather. Within this context, the contemporary industrial setting was somewhat confusing, and not used to the full.

Having set itself a high bar, there is much to commend in this production, and it’s good to see the Young Rep take on a challenge of this sort, just one of many from its Love & Rebellion Festival which runs at the Rep until 21st July.

Wuthering Heights was directed by Alice Chambers and adapted for the stage by Andrew Sheridan. Further information can be found at birmingham-rep.co.uk.