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Review: Wuthering Heights

Heather Wallace

If you know Wuthering Heights from film adaptions of Emily Bronte’s 1847 novel, or from Kate Bush’s haunting song there’s something you need to know about shake & stir’s production at the Canberra Theatre Centre.

Someone dies at the end of Act One and it’s not the end of the play, repeat it’s not the end of the play!

My sincere apologies dear readers, normally I’d never start a review with a spoiler, but you need to know that much so you come back after the interval. I say this because on opening night a few audience members were confused and the couple next to me didn’t return for the Second Act.

Most adaptions only show Cathy and Heathcliff’s passionate but obsessive love set against Yorkshire’s fog shrouded moors. Director and adapter Nick Skubij, who also plays Cathy’s brutal elder brother Hindley, dedicates the second act to the legacy of this destructive love on their children. And in doing Skubij shows how monstrous Cathy (Gemma Willing) and Heathcliff (Ross Balbuziente) become to bystanders caught in the maelstrom of their obsession.

Loyal servant Nellie Dean (Linden Wilkinson) narrates the story in flashback, starting with the adoption of a young street boy by Cathy’s father, bringing him to their family’s estate, Wuthering Heights, on the Yorkshire moors. Cathy’s brother is immediately jealous and violent towards Heathcliff, while an intense connection develops between the young girl and boy.

The pair are inseparable as they grow older, until an accident on a neighbour’s property leads to Cathy meeting the rich Linton siblings, Edgar (Tim Dashwood) and Isabella (Nelle Lee) and coldly ignoring Heathcliff.

Cathy and Isabella

Cathy and Isabella

Enraged he disappears, returning several years later vowing revenge after she marries Edgar. He turns the table on the now drunken and ruined Hindley, acquires Wuthering Heights and elopes with Isabella, heaping humiliation and abuse on Cathy. Into this poisonous climate the next generation is born, all pawns for Heathcliff to continue his cruel torments.

I applaud the decision not to make the play a Gothic Victorian period piece. The actors speak in their normal voices, and don’t assume fake English accents, and the costumes and sets are sleek and minimalist but still represent the original setting.

The stage design is exciting, with gauzy curtains, ghostly video projections and powerful lighting and sound effects bringing the wild environment to life. Thunder and lightning herald ferocious rain storms, and real water pelts the cast. With a body count from consumption and exposure that George RR Martin would be proud of, I sincerely hope the actors manage to dry off and stay healthy.

The small cast is hard working, many doubling roles as the next generation, with Gemma Willing as the younger Cathy, Nick Skubij as Hindley’s son Hareton who is kept in servitude by Heathcliff, and Nelle Lee as Hindley’s wife Frances as well as Isabella and Heathcliff’s sickly and sulky son Linton. I was particularly impressed with Nelle Lee, there is a quiet moment when she flinches at a dog barking, heralding the arrival of her brutal husband and speaking volumes of her fear and desperation.

By the second act the performances have become much more subtle, necessary to show the difference between the older and younger generations. Gemma Willing as the elder Cathy has a tough gig to show whether Cathy is mentally unwell or just a manipulative narcissist. Ross Balbuziente shows Heathcliff as a violent sociopath, cruel and unrelenting. He is mesmerising in a later scene where he speaks of Heathcliff’s inner torment, spotlit and finally vulnerable in his despair.

Rather than a romanticised version of a doomed love, this is a stark portrayal of destructive obsession in keeping with how shocking the novel was to its original audience.

the essentials

What: Wuthering Heights, by shake & stir
Where: Canberra Theatre Centre
When: 10-12 March 2016, 8.00pm ($35-$40) with a 2pm matinee on Saturday 12 March ($25-$40)
Buy tickets online via the Canberra Theatre Centre website:


Heather Wallace

Heather’s career in arts and heritage PR spans 15 years, with highlights including working for Sean Connery at the Edinburgh International Film Festival and promoting Australia’s World Heritage places. Her blog, Myths and Misadventures, (, is about life lessons we can learn from the Romans. You can follow her on Twitter @Missmythology. More about the Author

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