Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

Wuthering Heights
Wise Children
Review by Patrick Thomas

Also see Patrick's recent review of Frozen

The Cast
Photo by Kevin Berne
One of the greatest joys of theatre is to see how a group of artists and performers in league with each other can fire an audience's imagination to create in our mind's eyes a simulacrum of an entire world. In the case of Wuthering Heights, a production from Wise Children–a touring company based out of Bristol, England–which opened Tuesday evening at Berkeley Repertory Theatre's Roda Theatre, the world they have created is the Yorkshire moors in the late 18th century, and two houses that stood in that inhospitable environment: the titular Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange. These are home to two families, the Lintons and the Earnshaws, whose destinies are linked not only by their geographic proximity but by the drama (and cruelty) that ensues when the lord of Wuthering Heights, Mr. Earnshaw, returns from a journey to Liverpool with an orphan boy whom he adopts, names Heathcliff, and showers with love while mostly ignoring his own children.

Adapted by Emma Rice from the novel by Emily Brontë, this Wuthering Heights sprawls over nearly three hours in a telling that downplays the romance of the novel and heightens its more disturbing, gothic aspects. Yet, to evoke the Georgian era of England, Wise Children has foregone the architectural proportion, balance and symmetry of the period. Instead of Greek and Roman columns and pediments or opulent furnishings and costumes, Rice and her team (especially scenic and costume designer Vicki Mortimer) opted for a more spare and rustic look. It's almost as if the troupe assembled the set from what could be found in an abandoned church basement. Ladders of various heights lean together to suggest rocky crags or stone walls. Chairs jumbled atop each other could be trees, and a wide projection screen upstage displays images of threatening clouds and the occasional blue sky.

Rather like The 39 Steps and Kneehigh Theatre's The Wild Bride (also helmed by Emma Rice), the simplest of props and gestures stand in for elements and effects that would ordinarily call for a larger budget. Instead of a child actor to play the orphan Heathcliff (and the added expense for on-set tutors and such), a marionette–or half of one–will do. Instead of building the facade of a manor house, why not create an assemblage of doors and hatches and another of different windows, both of which can be rolled on and off stage? Why spend money on a wind machine when your actors can flap their coattails by hand to create a similar (and delightfully amusing) effect? (Movement and choreography were designed by Etta Murfitt.) None of these techniques work in film, but on stage they serve to fire our imagination, as well as making more efficient use of budget.

The cast, led by Liam Tamne as Heathcliff and Leah Brotherhead as his great love Catherine, bring all the passion and heartache of the novel to their performances. Given the source material's expansive nature, it can be challenging to keep track of who is infatuated with whom, something the cast acknowledge at the top of the show in a sort of aside to the audience, and again in act two when they blurt out "what the bloody hell is happening?"

There is music and songs by composer Ian Ross, played by a five-piece onstage band including two musicians who also play onstage roles, that help bring the emotional life of the characters to the fore. The cast do wonderful work with Ross's haunting melodies, displaying some truly gorgeous harmonies.

Whether you know the novel or not, or whether you pay close attention to follow every infatuation, act of cruelty, or convenient marriage or let the sprawling magnificence of this production simply wash over you, there is much pleasure to be had in this classically dark tale of love, jealousy and revenge.

Wuthering Heights runs through January 1, 2023, at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Roda Theatre, 2025 Addison Street, Berkeley CA. Shows are Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m., and Wednesdays at 7:00 p.m. Matinees are Saturdays and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. Thursday, June 16 there is only a 2:00pm matinee. On July 7, shows are at 2:00pm and 8:00pm. Tickets range from $24-$119. Tickets are available online at, or by calling the box office at (510) 647-2949.