Venue: Drama Barn
As passion, crazed obsession and bitter cruelty make up this Gothic romance, Wuthering Heights is not for the faint of heart (although the characters do faint a lot). Charged with the herculean task of condensing Emily Brontë’s iconic and only novel of 34 chapters into two hours, DramaSoc takes on Lucy Gough’s adaptation.
So something has to give when you compress a long, nuanced novel into a stage play, and unfortunately, Gough’s adaptation didn’t just condense but mercilessly stabbed, hacked and butchered Brontë’s novel. Particularly in the first half, scenes were disjointed with sporadic explosions of melodrama, which was not at all aided by the strained non-naturalistic tableau sequences that further disrupted the play’s already non-existent progression. The structural disorderliness did nothing to provide the sense of character development so critical to the story.
That said, despite the difficulty such a compressed play poses, there managed to be exceptional performances by some of the cast members. With the play giving little room for Catherine Earnshaw’s descend into madness, there was a danger that she would become a one-dimensional melodramatic figure. Yet, Elizabeth Cooke brilliantly navigated the nuanced moments of crazed neuroticism, tempering them with more quiet instances of heartbreaking despair and subtle moments of deep insecurity when she sought affirmation from Nelly when Edgar had asked her for her hand in marriage.
But by far the most unexpected performance came from Annabel Redgate who played Nelly Dean. Redgate displayed masterful restraint when playing the understated yet compassionate housekeeper and gave an incredibly sensitive rendition of Nelly, which shone beautifully amongst the big personalities of the other characters. Capturing perfectly that maternal maturity well beyond her years, the unassuming strength of her convictions when confronting Heathcliff proved that you didn’t have to yell to have powerfully moving moments.
Heathcliff’s character, however, was not spared in the adaptation. Although Ross Telfer’s portrayal of the brooding, Byronic figure was a solid attempt, the limited script was the most detrimental to Heathcliff. Unable to properly establish the character at any stage in the story, his deterioration to the cruel, damaged creature was not so much a development as it was an abrupt leap. Unfortunately, this meant that Telfer struggled to ever move past the melodramatic villain to show the shades of bitterness and hurt that is essential to colour his insatiable thirst for vengeance. The tightened script also meant that the multi-faceted psychology of Heathcliff was never explored through variation.
Although the beautifully creative set design of a barred balcony above the stage was poised for a harrowing story of love and loss, directorial decisions such as the pacing of the play augmented the choppiness of the Gough’s script. Much like the abrupt interruptions to the music awkwardly in between cadences, transitions were far too blunt and swift (not helped by stage hands noisily set down the props), meaning that dramatic or poignant moments were not relished at all.
At times, some scenes were so overly dramatic that they felt like caricatures of Brontë’s: it isn’t a good sign when the audience laughs when there is supposed to be great tension.
Other very deliberate elements of the play were occasionally distracting like the makeup that belonged in a couture fashion show (you know, the ones where you can’t possibly see anyone wearing those outlandish clothes) and not with Victorian costumes. When Nelly cleans Heathcliff’s face, she says, “I want to work off some of that grime.” I wish she had also worked off some of that guyliner.
Taking on Wuthering Heights is a highly ambitious endeavour worth commending on the Herculean (and maybe, with Gough’s adaptation, Sisyphean) effort alone, but perhaps more should be done to subsidise the script’s weaknesses and limitations. Either way, the play promises to be thought-provoking and is worth watching.