Helping young people accomplish their dreams is a bit of alright in my book, and especially when they are at a serious disadvantage because of a lack of money. Ian McKellen thinks the National Youth Theatre is as good a way into acting as any drama school, and with alumni that includes Daniel Day Lewis and Helen Mirren, who could possibly disagree? The once-a-year rep season includes a series of shows with selected actors taking place at a West End theatre. Stephanie Street’s reworking of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights is the first of 2015 and includes not one, but five Cathys and Heathcliffs. Giving you a headache just reading that? Hang on. The NYT has made a clear point here of highlighting the frequently-talked-about-and-especially-right-now issue of colour-blind casting by picking actors of different races to be the two leads. The various stages in Cathy and Heathcliff’s lives, from growing up to growing away, producing life and destroying others, are played by a series of the young actors and has almost been departmentalised. The Wuthering Heights we see here, though having a concise and fluid story, is in danger of losing the connection one should feel for such emotional characters because very different looking actors with different approaches are being slotted in.
Is there an irony that NYT have incorporated here? Are they playing on how heavily colour-blind casting is being handled at the moment? It’s great that characters such as these, so dominant in the canon as they are, and so set in people’s minds, are being played on. It’s a really great thing to see. But couldn’t they have done that with just one or two actors per role? There’s deliberacy here that, though important to offer and highlight, creates an unfortunate wall between us and how we connect to the characters. I found myself swaying towards specific ‘Cathys’ and ‘Heathcliffs’ rather than loving and feeling for the character as a whole.
Megan Parkinson and Lauren Lyle give fantastic interpretations of Cathy. Parkinson is raw, unsure and bloody funny. Lyle’s Scottish and final version gives great and real, epic emotion. There’s also some very strong performances by Ellise Chappell, Melissa Taylor and particularly Alice Feetham whose Ellen cripples one’s heart with her desire for her child.
The Heathcliffs fail to even share an ounce of stage presence with their other halves. Luke Pierre stands out with an impressive and contrasting physique, his brooding, quietly dangerous temperament highlighting the boy’s transition into manhood. Oliver West is animalistic and quite frightening but there doesn’t seem to be enough fluidity between the different versions to explain how startlingly different he is to the predecessor.
Cecilia Carey has given us a bleak and very muddy set that has plenty of atmosphere, with the aid of Josh Pharo’s lighting and Emma Laxton’s sound. It never feels as though we are roaming the moors, but heck, that’s never going to be easy to illustrate on stage.
Emily Lim has done a great job with this production and yes, the series of different actors slipping in and out as the protagonists makes it difficult to engage with them fully, but it’s certainly a very interesting and engaging approach.
Wuthering Heights is playing at the Ambassador’s Theatre until 4 December. For more information and tickets, see the National Youth Theatre website. Photo: NYT.