Wise Children are back on our home screens – I hope that a filmed staging at the Bristol Old Vic might become an annual event, happily bridging the bleak weeks between Halloween scares and Christmas season. Other than last year when we watched The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk from home, we share the experience with a filled auditorium: When director Emma Rice invites the audience present to wave to the online viewers and asked us to return the waving, it is a clear “I’m not crying, you’re crying” moment. What an emotional start to the evening!
Those who have indulged Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights from 1847 page by page might judge better than me if this is a satisfying novel adaptation (Twitter celebrates the performance already in the interval) – I only know remnants of this spooky Yorkshire tale and of course, as a lifelong fan, Kate Bush’s 1970s uber-debut single. What I witness tonight is a dark melange of worn wooden interior, tattered grey clouds and murders of crows battling through them, loneliness and desperation. Thrones made of chairs, crowns webbed of twigs and leaves fitting servants and sprites, dangling bouquets of weak bulbs, characters enrobed in linen and pairs of braces and if not, already suspiciously alien in this rural, almost dull palette of drama: A fascinating scythe puppetry dog as a banshee’s companion and butterfly booklets as omens of looming tragedies. The shadows of the past, present and future judge from every corner of life like divine thunderstorms. Cruelty arises from misery and despise, responded by bitterness and hate. Everyone seems torn between caring and not caring at all.
To appreciate sounds and especially the singing better, I soon decide to use headphones rather than the ThinkPad speakers – and then, mid-scream the streaming freezes, I will only be able to return to the story of step sibling love and hate possibly two or three scenes later (without figuring out whose fault it has been). Is the beauty of online theatre that things can go wrong, as it is the beauty of visiting a performance that things do not always go according to plan? Thankfully, when back, stagehands hold chalk boards to guide through the character’s genograms – I believe this was not improvised… I never relied on background actors so much.
The star of the show is the vibrant folk music, who from the beginning to the end create instrumentals as melancholy as late autumn sunshine: Cello, drums, guitar, viola. And an accordion for the more joyous or at least social occasions to fall in love with. Ignoring the fact that there is little even bittersweet joy on stage, is there actually a Yorkshire word for the Portuguese saudade? Eventually, a glimpse of Spring breaks through, a genuine relief after so much coldness. I wonder if being haunted by one’s personal history and expectation already formulates a ghost story. Wuthering Heights is not an optimistic play, and full of women, no, of characters having their personalities disappearing once they commit to someone through marriage, blood or emotions, after which only selfishness will guide them further through life. There is crying, yelling and a unexpected hard rock number. After this, I could really do with a filmed version of Wise Children’s Malory Towers or Bagdad Café – life is not always a nightmare, but it will stay cold and gloomy on this muddy island for several months from now.
**** out of five stars
Wuthering Heights is a National Theatre, Wise Children, Bristol Old Vic and York Theatre Royal co-production.