Wuthering Heights at Bristol Old Vic

Vivienne Kennedy reviews Wise Children’s Wuthering Heights, playing at Bristol Old Vic until Saturday 6 November.

Just as there are some actors, dancers and musicians whose work I am always keen to see, so there are directors, and at top of that list is Wise Children’s founder Emma Rice. As soon as I read she was directing a new adaptation of Wuthering Heights, I knew I wanted a ticket. I have yet to be disappointed by one of her shows, and, in fact, could watch them all over and over again, normally spotting something new at each viewing.

That said, Wuthering Heights itself may not have been a big draw; had I not known Rice’s previous work. Back in the late 1970s, I was as intrigued as anyone by Kate Bush’s song, which was totally different from anything I’d heard before, but when given a copy of Emily Brontë’s 1847 novel at prizegiving one year, I was not impressed – a literary classic… that wasn’t for me. It got pushed into a cupboard until it appeared on my ‘O’ Level (yes, I’m that old, more Weston-super-Nan than Mum) syllabus as a set text and I had to dig it back out. I hated it on principle, as I did anything connected with the English Literature classroom.

I never did read it properly (although I somehow managed to pass the exam), but I may try again now.

Inspired by scenes from the refugee camps at Calais, and enraged by the plight of unaccompanied children, Rice has created an incredible show, and, just like the song, many decades ago, it is quite unlike anything I have seen before. The Bristol Old Vic website describes it as a ‘powerful and uniquely theatrical experience’, and that sums it up well.

We learn the story of Heathcliff, an unaccompanied child himself, discovered on the docks at Liverpool and taken in by Earnshaw to be brought up alongside his own children, and we see how the experiences of childhood can affect many generations to come.

It has everything, from drama and tragedy to lively music, skilful puppetry, beautiful choreography, and more comedy than I expected; not to mention what seems like an incredibly complicated family tree (although when you see it in the programme*, it appears quite straightforward). At various points I find myself on the edge of my seat, desperate to know what happens next, moments later gasping with horror, laughing out loud, or wiping away tears. It’s a show that engages all your emotions.

I love the use of the Greek chorus to make sure The Moor is as big a character as any of the Earnshaws or Lintons. And credit must be given to the creative team including choreographer Etta Murfitt and composer Ian Ross. No complaints with any of the casting, but I can’t resist mentioning Katy Owen, who absolutely steals the show with her portrayals of Isabella Linton and her son Little Linton.

On press night, Wuthering Heights receives a standing ovation, and they’re rare enough at Bristol Old Vic to really mean something. It’s well-deserved, a fabulous evening of theatre.

The show runs at Bristol Old Vic until Saturday 6 November and I suspect tickets are going to sell well, so don’t delay booking. If you’re not sure about returning to the theatre yet, several performances are guaranteed to be socially distanced, and there will also be live broadcasts, should you prefer to watch from home. The schedule also includes captioned, audio described and signed performances.

For further information and to book online, click HERE.


*  The programme… kudos to Wise Children for trying something new and taking the programme digital, which saves the audience money while also saving some trees. You are given a postcard with your ticket, hold your smartphone camera over the QR code on the back, and, ‘as if by magic’, the programme should appear, all 41(very interesting) pages of it.

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