The Matthews Theatre at the McCarter Theatre Center is an expansive place, a huge auditorium with a wide and deep stage. Stripped nearly bare of scenery pieces and barely lit (as stage lighting goes), one can well imagine it to be the wild Yorkshire moors of Great Britain. The unrelieved gloom, accompanied by the eerie, haunting sounds of the untamed winds, is designed to harden the heart of a man — or break it beyond repair.
It is this fantastical landscape in which the UK troupe Wise Children has set its adaptation of Emily Brontë’s classic 1847 novel Wuthering Heights, and it is this story, adapted and directed by Emma Rice, that the McCarter Theatre Center displays before us. One can see the near-impossibility of adapting Brontë’s opus into a three-hour production, and if nothing else, one must admire the company of actors, musicians, and creative staff who have taken on this challenge — even if one does not admire the play itself.
The plot revolves around two families, the Earnshaws and the Lintons. Mr. Earnshaw (Lloyd Gorman) returns from a business trip with a street urchin he names Heathcliff (Ricardo Castro), to the disgust of his son Hindley (Tama Phethean) and delight of his daughter Catherine (Eleanor Sutton). On Earnshaw’s passing, Hindley takes over the estate, Wuthering Heights, and finally kicks Heathcliff out.
Catherine turns for comfort to the neighboring Lintons, Edgar (Sam Archer) and his sister Isabella (Georgie Bruce). Just as Edgar proposes to Catherine, Heathcliff returns, now a wealthy gentleman with a strong taste for revenge. Heathcliff spends the rest of the play ruining everyone and destroying any lingering chances for happiness, even for the next generation — Hindley’s son Hareton Earnshaw (Phethean); Heathcliff’s own son by Isabella, Linton Heathcliff (Bruce); and Catherine’s daughter Cathy Linton (Stephanie Hockley). Overseeing all this is the embodiment of the Yorkshire Moors, a kind of Greek chorus led by the amazing Jordan Laviniere.
It takes a lot of endurance on the audience’s part to spend the better part of three hours with the Earnshaw and Linton families, as no one seems to have the capacity for change or emotional growth. Not headstrong, spoiled Catherine; not lovesick Edgar or simpering Isabella; not bullying, entitled Hindley; and definitely not Heathcliff, whose vengeful-to-the-point-of-sadism spirit dominates the show.
What does help ease the unmitigated sorrow is the hauntingly beautiful music created by Ian Ross and performed by a small on-stage ensemble of musicians and the choral sounds of the Moors. Vicki Mortimer’s set and costume designs create a unified whole, enhanced by the videos created by Simon Baker.
Wuthering Heights, in its various incarnations on the screen and for television — especially the 1939 film with Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon as Heathcliff and Cathy — has been regarded as a tragic romance. In its play version here, as in the novel, the focus is more on the roots of revenge and domestic violence, especially that of the times in which the original novel was written. As such, it becomes a harder slog to go through for modern audiences.
Those with a taste for depictions of the social norms of mid-1800’s England, and those with a liking for modern British stagecraft, will no doubt be enthralled with McCarter Theatre Center’s production of Wuthering Heights. For all others, I would recommend spending an evening at home watching the 1939 film while snuggled under a blanket.
Wuthering Heights is presented by the McCarter Theatre Center at the Matthews Theatre in Princeton through March 12, 2023.
For more information or to purchase tickets, call 609-258-2787 or visit mccarter.org. This show is for ages 10 and up; parental discretion is advised. It contains strobes, flashing lights, and haze effects as well as depictions of physical and sexual violence.