Saturday, October 26, 2013

Wuthering Heights

Wuthering Heights runs at the Phoenix Theatre in Coniston from October 16 – 26 2013. By Steen and Erifilli Davis, based on the book by Emily Bronte, directed by Anton Johannssen.

I don’t review a lot of community theatre, but there’s something about the Phoenix Theatre in Wollongong which compels me to write about it. Last time I was there, I saw what might have been the best worst production of Hamlet ever. This time, when I went along to see Wuthering Heights, I was treated to a masterclass in how not to adapt a book for the theatre. The subtitle to this production could have been Page to Stage: Don’t Do This.

Full disclosure: I know a little about adapting books for the stage. I’ve had a few adaptations staged, perhaps most notably my first effort as a teenager, Dracula at the Roo Theatre Company in Shellharbour, and Sense and Sensibility for Free Rain Theatre in Canberra, for which I was nominated for a CAT award. This isn’t to say that I’m brilliant at it or anything, but I have read and thought about it a lot, so I have some pretty strong opinions on the matter.

The first thing that needs to be understood in the process of adaptation is that what works on the page will not necessarily work on the stage. The two media are innately different, and when adapting a book, you need to distill the text, finding the key moments in the story and emphasising their theatricality. The narrative techniques you need to use are often quite different, because the way we experience these two types of text are quite different: using Wuthering Heights as an example, if you were reading the book, you probably wouldn’t sit down and consume the whole book in two hours.

(Though this production is more like three hours. Guys, don’t do that.)

When you’re adapting, you want to be faithful to the text you’re working from (unless, as I discovered ten years ago, you’re adapting Dracula, in which case most adaptors basically throw the book out the window and do whatever the hell they want). But what you absolutely cannot do – what is theatrical suicide – is faithfully reproduce huge chunks of the text onstage. It doesn’t work. Not only does copy-pasting demonstrate a remarkable lack of understanding of the text you're adapting, you are going to end up with a script totally unsuitable for theatre. What you want to do is to be faithful to the plot and the characters, insofar as that is possible, and to the spirit of the text. Where you can include parts from the original, good. But if you rely too heavily on following the book, then ninety-nine times out of a hundred you are going to end up with an epic mess where the pacing is all screwed up, the structure is incredibly weird, and it’s mind-numbingly dull. (Trust me. You should have seen the disaster that was my first draft of Sense and Sensibility.)

This production of Wuthering Heights proudly boasts that it has been approved by the Bronte Society (is that a thing? I did not know that was a thing) as a faithful adaptation of Emily Bronte’s novel. However, that does not make it good theatre. In fact, it makes it pretty bad theatre. As it stands, Bronte’s novel is not a natural fit for the stage. You have that whole story-within-a-story thing with the multiple narrators: Nelly’s story sits inside Lockwood’s one (and apart from the IT’S ME, YOUR CATHY incident immortalised by Kate Bush, Lockwood’s story is hella boring). Then you have that last third or so of the book where it’s all about Earnshaws, Lintons and Heathcliffs Generation Two: Electric Boogaloo, and how Heathcliff is super mean to them all. And then there’s the fact that Emily Bronte SHATTERS the show don’t tell rule. She mostly pulls it off, but having people tell other people about way more interesting stuff that happened elsewhere is violently anti-theatrical. We want to see the interesting stuff first hand! That’s part of the fun of theatre!

Because of its slavish (a word, I might add, that the actors do not seem to know how to pronounce – it does not rhyme with “lavish”) adherence to Bronte’s text, this adaptation by Phoenix Theatre’s artistic director Steen and his collaborator Erifilli Davis falls flat on its face. It is way too long, glosses over the most interesting parts, keeps most of the boring bits in, and cripples itself in its effort to maintain the double narrator conceit present in the book. Is it faithful? Yes, mostly. Is it theatrically interesting? Not really. Because here’s a little secret about Wuthering Heights: no one cares about Mr Lockwood. No one really cares about Nelly. There’s a reason the young Cathy/Linton/Hareton triangle is largely excised from most adaptations, and even when it’s not, no one – NO ONE – wants to focus on their dramarama for very long (AND DEFINITELY FOR NOT MORE THAN AN HOUR).

What people care about and remember from Wuthering Heights is the towering, obsessive, almost demonic love of Catherine and Heathcliff, and if that’s not the centre of your adaptation, then you’ve got something wrong. (Even Heathcliff: The Musical starring Cliff Richard managed to do this, although Catherine did not figure in my favourite part, where Heathcliff sailed around the world exploiting the people of Africa, India, China, and the Middle East, making me utter the phrase, “I want to write a post-colonial critique of this,” for the first and only time in my life.)

When I think back on this production, I won’t remember Cathy and Heathcliff’s relationship. It was pretty bland, insofar as a relationship which includes phrases like, “I cannot live without my life! I cannot live without my soul!” can be bland. There are things I will remember, like the fact most of Heathcliff’s lines appeared to be delivered via CAPSLOCK OF RAGE and that he greeted a surprising amount of people by pushing them over. I will remember that there were inexplicably three different actresses playing Nelly Dean. I will remember that it had more false endings than the third Lord of the Rings movie. I will remember Heathcliff dying in a pose that looked like he died in the middle of either an epic game of shadow puppets or of a lobster impersonation. I will remember that Hareton looked like he was about to audition to be in Fall Out Boy and was apparently completely incapable of doing up his shirt until he began how to learn how to read (when he presumably read A Beginner’s Guide To Buttons). And, more seriously, I will remember some of the actors, because I think there’s some talent in this cast.

But what I will remember most of all is not the delicious Wuthering Heights-ishness of it all, and that makes me sad. I’ll remember what a good example it was of how not to adapt a text for the stage, and the pitfalls we can fall into when we try too hard to be “faithful”. 

(Although thinking about this show did make me realise that Avril Lavigne's Sk8er Boi is totally a modern interpretation of Wuthering Heights. Think about it.)

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