Love is a dirty word.
Shake & stir theatre is undoubtedly Brisbane’s (nay Australia’s) best literary stage adaptors, and they continue to carry the mantle in their new adaptation of Emily Brontë’s gothic masterpiece, Wuthering Heights.
Adapted and directed boldy by co-artistic director Nick Skubij, the tragic tale focuses on an obsessive relationship between Heathcliffe (Ross Balbuziente), an abandoned street boy, but now favoured son of Mr. Earnsaw (Anthony Standish), rich land owner of Wuthering Heights, and his daughter Cathy Earnshaw (Melanie Zanetti). When Cathy chooses wealth over love and marries Edgar Linton (Julian Curtis), from Thrushcross Grange, Heathcliffe leaves the moors only to return years later, a renewed man of wealth, but not of heart, and enacts revenge on all who ruined his only chance at happiness.
Costume designer Leigh Buchanan did a fantastic job in creating the period pieces; the blue dress worn by Melanie Zanetti was just stunning. Josh McIntosh created a wonderfully gothic design, set in the sitting room of Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange manors, with the two properties distinguished by a grand piano and a either a large black or white armchair respectively. The eerie setting was enhanced by a large set of drapes that provides the backdrop for the always impressive projection designs of optikal bloc. Mention here should also go to Dylan Evans for his captivating, moody photographic images.
Lighting designer Jason Glenwright and sound designer Guy Webster created a memorable opening to the show that immediately grabbed our attention mid-conversation. From those penetrating thunder-claps and lightning-bolts that snapped to black and shocked the senses, I braced myself for a thrilling horror story.
Melanie Zanetti as the pouty and spoilt Catherine was enchanting to watch and easily flipped from the innocence of a child to temper tantrums and crude manipulation with ease and really carried the show. Ross Balbuziente as the brooding, dangerous Heathcliffe, was as expected, gorgeous, unpredictable, and abrupt, but found the characterisation of the younger version at the outset of the play a little neglected and relied more on costuming than having an internal character life. A little more of the sultry, sexuality in the adult Heathcliffe that the poster promises, would have added layering to this toxic character. I don’t remember these characters being so unlikeable when I read them in high school, but maybe I romanticised them over the years as simply being two passionate inseparable lovers.
In a surprising role reversal, Australian star of stage and screen Gerry Connolly, plays the female role of the narrator and housemaid, Nelly Dean. Not scared of pushing boundaries, shake & stir’s casting of the comedian was a risky move that paid off. The novelty never wore off and in fact kept us engaged in the character, and provided a little lightness to an otherwise dark tale. However, on opening night it seemed that more rehearsal time would have served this production well, as it became unsure whether the execution of stilted lines were due to a stylistic choice or lapses in memory.
Julian Curtis as Edgar Linton, the head of Thrushcross Grange, yet powerless husband of Catherine, had a natural acting style that was easy to watch, especially when his character arc went from pompous conservative to concerned father and Cathy’s pawn, we as an audience could really empathise with him. Anthony Standish, rounded out the cast nicely with playing both the neglected son Hindley, and Hareton (Hindley’s son).
With cast playing multiple roles that span decades, the ensemble did an admirable job of changing roles and assimilating characters over time. However, paring back the cast for the economy of touring isn’t without some disadvantages, that unfortunately hampered the quality of this production. The gorgeous and talented Nelle Lee, played the roles of Isabella Linton with a kindly grace and charm, as well as Frances Earnshaw who died after giving birth to Hareton. But it is in the male role of the feeble child Linton Heathcliff that produced a weak link. The pants role complete with obvious wig did not give any credibility or weight to the character to the point of being farcical. In such a dark play, the audience is going to grab at anything for a bit of light relief. This is no fault of Nelle’s, but perhaps a decision that is not worth the sacrifice of production quality and audience engagement with the story.
While the first act feels a little long (the whole show clocks in at two hours and twenty minutes), don’t let that deter you from seeing this classic brought to stage by one of Brisbane’s most inventive production companies. Recently listed in Brisbane News Magazine as Brisbane’s Top 10 Creatives, Ross Balbuziente, Nick Skubij, and Nelle Lee, consistently produce inspired work that makes theatre accessible to a younger audience.
The show comes with a course language and adult themes warning, but just as an FYI, if you don’t want to get wet, don’t sit in the front row.
Wuthering Heights by shake & stir will play until 18 October 2014, in the Cremorne Theatre, QPAC.