On London Stages, Maverick Responses to Mortality
Even more so than Elerian, Emma Rice is a prominent director-adapter who doesn’t take familiar texts at face value. A former artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe, Rice made her name running the touring company Kneehigh, which deconstructed such time-honored titles as “Brief Encounter” and “Tristan & Yseult.” Since then, Rice has started a theatrical entity called Wise Children, whose irreverent take on the Emily Brontë novel “Wuthering Heights” can be found on the Lyttelton stage of the National Theater through March 19.
The eclectic impulses behind this production are evident from its cast, which brings together dancers, performance artists and a “Hamilton” alum to tell the corpse-strewn story of the foundling, Heathcliff (Ash Hunter, the veteran of the aforementioned musical), and the ill-starred Catherine (Lucy McCormick, a maverick talent who moves between self-devised work and plays such as this one). Juggling several roles is the charismatic Sam Archer, an actor-dancer whose nimble movement very explicitly keeps Rice’s take on this 1847 novel from seeming earthbound: It’s always helpful to have a performer on hand capable of soaring at any moment.
Rice’s freewheeling approach to the material won’t suit the purists. It’s surprising to find the Yorkshire moors — a setting crucial to the novel — brought to three-dimensional life by an assemblage led by the arresting Nandi Bhebhe, who seems to be wearing a crown of sticks and twigs and has a retinue of similarly attired human plants. Elsewhere, the convolutions of the plot are confronted head-on. “How is anybody expected to follow this?” asks the resident narrator, Lockwood (one of Archer’s several roles), only for Bhebhe to chip in with an awareness that “no one said this is going to be easy.”
Rice’s goal is to ease a path through a labyrinthine novel by bringing her total-theater aesthetic to a music-heavy production that announces the characters’ fates on a chalkboard, a choice that taps directly into the association many will have with this novel from their student days. A trim or two wouldn’t go amiss, and there are times when the reinvention seems reckless, not revelatory.
But I won’t soon forget a fierce-eyed McCormick haunting the action from beyond the grave like an ongoing premonition of doom, and Katy Owen’s chirpy Isabella Linton all but steals the show: a figure of audience-friendly fun amid the landscape of mortality that, as with “The Chairs,” we come to realize is our shared lot.
The Chairs. Directed by Omar Elerian. Almeida Theater, through March 5.
Wuthering Heights. Directed by Emma Rice. National Theater, through March 19.