How is it possible to reduce Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights – yes, all 250 pages of it – to a 50 minute stage play? Well, it isn’t, as Cardiff’s Act One Theatre can amply attest. One could conceivably peel layers away from Wuthering Heights as one would an onion, by firstly shedding Nelly and Lockwood, but then one would lose the most iconic scene in the novel, in which Lockwood apprehends Catherine’s ghost. In any case, this “Wuthering Heights” – which is presently established at the Spaces on North Bridge – is determined to keep the original story intact. The result is like watching a film of Wuthering Heights on forward wind. Or rather, considering how many teenagers are here this evening, one feels like a student who has finally got around to skim-reading the novel an hour before he has to sit a GCSE on it.
The audience must know the original novel already, otherwise they would be sitting here stunned as Earnshaws and Lintons shot whistling past their heads. Moments of great drama – homecomings, marriages and deaths – are typically accorded about eighty seconds apiece. Considering that Lockwood remarks of Wuthering Heights (at least in the book) that “time stagnates here,” one would think that Heathcliff (Greg Davies) had all of the time in the world to declare his love to Cathy. Instead, he barks the news at her as if he was rushing to catch the next train.
This Lockwood (Glen Jordan) is a shiny-faced twit, who is nevertheless brave enough to pilfer some sort of telephone directory from Heathcliff’s home. He wanders about reciting the names from it, but we spend so little time with the corresponding characters that they are effectively nothing but their names. They all have the same flicker of a personality – a Yorkshire personality – which is dour, manipulative and emotionally retarded. When Hindley is up and Heathcliff is down, they are respectively cruelly manipulative and dourly aggrieved. When Heathcliff is up, he becomes cruelly manipulative. Yet it is hopeless: these characters are so implausibly sparse and simple that it is like watching Wuthering Heights being performed by goldfish.
If Act One had selected a handful of scenes from the novel, and performed them at a realistic pace, with dialogue which resembles how people realistically talk in real life, then they might have created a memorable show. The characters are crisp – their Heathcliff looks and sounds like Heathcliff should – their Nelly, Linton, and Hindley are equally vivid – although this Cathy (Georgia Bradley) is a little too girlish to inflame my inner Heathcliff. The cast offer some wistful melodic singing, although they together sound largely like a kettle when trying to recreate the atmosphere of the moors. The advertised puppets never appear, but perhaps they had wanted to play Yorkshiremen with rather more meat on them.