By George Maguire and Barry Willis
Writer/director Emma Rice has deconstructed one of the most beloved English novels of the 19th century and has remade it into a pop-rock extravaganza, delighting some critics and outraging others. Her Wuthering Heights runs at Berkeley Repertory Theatre through January 1, 2023.
Traditionalists expecting a stage production of the dark 1939 film starring Merle Oberon and Laurence Olivier are likely to be disappointed. This frenetic, high-energy show is geared to a younger generation with a different aesthetic, but it can work equally well for those not necessarily tethered to the past. Innumerable classic stories have been reinvented for the sake of stage and screen entertainment. There’s certainly no reason why Wuthering Heights shouldn’t suffer the same fate, just as Hamlet can be reinterpreted as a modern business drama, or Romeo and Juliet reconfigured as a rock opera.
…The movement work in this show is inspiring. So is (the) mining of humor…
Controversy swirled at Berkeley Rep’s November 22 press opener. Some critics raved to their colleagues about Rice’s stunning production while others dismissed it as an abomination. ASR’s George Maguire and Barry Willis comment here:
BW: This is an amazing, dynamic production with multi-threat performers who can act, dance, do gymnastics, and in some cases, play instruments. Especially impressive are Jordan Laviniere, who plays the leader of the Yorkshire Moors, and Leah Brotherhead as Catherine. She’s also a great rock singer. TJ Holmes, who plays Dr. Kenneth, performs on cello and accordion when he’s not stage center. He’s a delightful comic actor, one of a cast of eleven, most of whom tackle multiple roles. Theatrical talent is everywhere in this show but the multi-casting can cause confusion among viewers because most of the characters are cousins with similar names.
GM: Yeah, Barry! It is a fairly faithful adaptation of Emily Bronte’s novel, and if you can stop conflating the story with her sister Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, you’re a winner. The story itself is weighted down with so many generations of relationships, and births and deaths, with eleven actors playing all the roles. It’s often highly confusing.
BW: I’m no Bronte expert, but it looks to me like Emma Rice has adhered to the original plot, but uses story elements and characters to create something entirely new. I’m generally approving of prequels, sequels, and reinterpretations of classic stories — with the exception of Daniel Fish’s Oklahoma!, a real horror show.
Rice’s Wuthering Heights isn’t really the Bronte classic. I attended with my friend Marcia Tanner, an art curator with a degree in English Literature from UC Berkeley. She quipped: “It’s misleading to title this show Wuthering Heights . . . it should be Something Based on Wuthering Heights.” That’s a fair assessment.
GM: My biggest challenge was not hearing the play (technically, a musical), but frankly, it was not understanding what the cast was saying and singing.
BW: That was a problem for many in the audience, I believe. Thick Yorkshire accents were tough enough to understand during dialog, and impossible to decipher during the show’s many songs. I loved the music but couldn’t tell you what any of the songs are about. Marcia astutely observed, “They need superscripts.” The only words that appear on the large backdrop are a few lines from the novel.
GM: Etta Murfitt’s choreography is wonderful and eclectic, ranging from almost hoe-down, to Irish jig, to nonspecific elegance. A lovely and diverse musical score by Ian Ross keeps the play moving. The casting of eleven very accomplished members of the Wise Children’s troupe was a joy, as was watching them effortlessly morph into the manifold characters in the novel. Heathcliff (Liam Tamne, of multi-national background) is particularly inspired casting, making the orphan Heathcliff the dark, brooding, and very sexy creature he was — unlike anyone else in the Yorkshire moors.
BW: I was knocked out by the performers and the quick-moving stagecraft, especially the rolling doors-and-windows pieces that transformed into beds and other devices. The books-on-sticks-as-fluttering-birds bit is brilliant low-cost theatricality. So are the chalkboards that serve as erasable tombstones.
GM: The movement work in this show is inspiring. So is Rice’s mining of humor — she finds comedic potential in many of Bronte’s situations, something that to my knowledge has never been done. But this Wuthering Heights is no spoof — it’s an inspired reinterpretation.
BW: Was the love affair between Heathcliff and his adoptive sister Catherine considered scandalous when the novel was published? It might be seen as close to incest today even though the two were not biologically related. Save Dr. Kenneth and the narrator Mr. Lockwood, almost all the other characters in the production are cousins, nothing unusual in an isolated community.
GM: A community that’s cold, damp, and dark! Rice and set designer Vicki Mortimer went over the top portraying that.
BW: I had no expectations about this show, and was delighted — especially by the incredibly dynamic first act.
My only prior exposure was reading the novel in ninth grade — required reading — and having watched the movie at some point not long after that on late-night TV. The subject matter wasn’t something that resonated for me and wasn’t anything I cared to revisit.
I have difficulty relating to the social structure and morality of the time, which makes playwrights like Ibsen, Strindberg, Chekov, and their contemporaries something of a slog for me. I never liked G. B. Shaw until I saw Major Barbara, but I hope to live a thousand years without enduring another Mrs. Warren’s Profession.
But I understand the appeal of Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters, especially for women. In their time, the only path to a better life was through choosing the right marriage partner. Mothers often bled to death after childbirth. Infant and childhood mortality were rampant, from conditions easily treated today. This whole pathetic milieu is background for Wuthering Heights, but Emma Rice makes it entertaining and enjoyable..
GM: In all, this Wuthering Heights is a truly nifty addition to the repertoire of Wise Children, a new theatre company founded by Ms. Rice, whose group brought The Wild Bride to life at Berkeley Rep a few years ago. Imaginative, enthralling and chillingly-thrillingly theater.
ASR Contributing Writer George Maguire is a San Francisco-based actor-director and is Professor Emeritus of Solano College Theatre. He is a voting member of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: email@example.com
ASR NorCal Executive Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
|Written by||Emily Bronte
Adapted by Emma Rice
|Directed by Emma Rice|
Choreographed by Etta Murfitt
|Saheem Ali (Conceiver/Director)|
|Producing Company||Wise Children / Berkeley Repertory Theatre|
|Production Dates||Through January 1, 2023|
|Production Address||2025 Addison Street, Berkeley CA 94704|
|Tickets||$24 - $119|
|Reviewer Score||Max in each category is 5/5|
|Aisle Seat Review Pick?||YES!|