Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier is back and big with World Stages, where the company imports the very best of world theater for Chicago audiences to experience. Last weekend saw the opening of a glorious production: Wise Children’s Wuthering Heights at the Yard last weekend for a short run. This co-production brings together Bristol Old Vic and York Theatre Royal in association with Berkeley Repertory Theatre for a sweeping epic that throws in everything from live on stage band with a luscious score by Ian Ross, and a dozen multi talented performers playing legions and generations to a puppet child and dance numbers with the Moors. This adaptation of Emily Bronte’s epic novel conceived of and directed by Emma Rice strips away a great deal of language, substituting sweeping movement, a compelling score and stunning visuals to portray this complex story of race, class, domestic violence, and how hurt people pass on pain and trauma as almost a genetic legacy.
I recall the plot as being sad and hopelessly romantic but this adaptation layers the tragedy of privilege and the inherent misogyny of the patriarchy over the dysfunction of obsessive love, and adds the Moors as a Greek chorus while deleting Nelly the narrator to give the story additional universality .
We start the story after much of the action has played out: Heathcliff (a brooding unlikeable Liam Tamne) is bitter and inhospitable to his new tenant Lockwood, and his family is clearly not a pleasant one. We jump back to his childhood where a puppet stands in for Heathcliff as a foundling, adopted and doted on by his new father, Earnshaw (played by TJ Holms who also serves as the local and somewhat inept Dr. Kenneth). Earnshaw’s children respond to the new sibling in opposite ways: Catherine, played by the wild impulsive Katy Ellis comes to deeply love him, and Hindley Earnshaw (the towering Tama Phethean who also will play Hindleys son Hareton) comes to seriously loathe and torture him– the trauma compounds whatever back story the boy (a delicate and loveable puppet) has and he grows up to be harmed and difficult.
This production underlines the racial differences without shouting them, but in a week with another brutal murder of a black life, we audience cannot fail to notice and be intensely uncomfortable with overwhelming systemic racism. Heathcliff overcomes the prejudice against him by becoming exceedingly rich and triumphing over the now alcoholic and broke Hindley.
There will be a great deal of intermarrying and marrying off women as an act of spite and revenge. The intermingling of families becomes emotionally incestuous. There will be betrayals, and so many characters will die: Hindley’s beloved Frances passes shortly after childbirth, Little Linton of neglect. And those who survive will inhabit a kind of hell of loveless and twisted relationships. And yet, the ending is happy and in a way felt forced, and the next generation models healing. This twenty-first century rendering of a classic tragedy attempts to offer us hope and redemption, though I will be honest that despite the glorious staging and light change, I felt the positive ending was built on sand.
This, as is practically any of the World Stage offerings, is an important must see piece both for its content and its execution, but also for its place as a cultural artifact. The novel is considered one of the most important works in English literature, and the world in which it was birthed was so anti-woman that its author had to use a man’s name to get it out. The shadow side of Western Culture is as dark as it was when this story was written, though now the cost of our prejudices is as much nightly news as it is the stuff of our literature. Perhaps sitting together in a theater and witnessing can begin the conversation of healing and we can be better for the next generation.
Wuthering Heights is playing through February 19, 2023 at Chicago Shakespeare Theater in the Yard on Navy Pier at 800 East Grand Avenue, Chicago. For more information and tickets go to www.chicagoshakes.com or call 312-595-5600. There will be an audio described performance on Sunday February 12,2023 at 2pm, open captioned performances on Wednesday February 15,2023 and an ASL interpreted performance on February 17,2023.
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