Emily Brontë's classical novel is adapted at Banbridge's Solitude Park
As settings go, Banbridge's Solitude Park on a balmy summer's evening is a world away from the wild, stormy moors of west Yorkshire.
It's challenging enough for any theatre company to bring Emily Brontë's classical novel Wuthering Heights to life into a two-hour stage production, without the added nuisance of glorious sunshine to mar this dark, gothic tale of doomed love.
So credit must go to Chapterhouse Open Air Theatre Company for not only successfully condensing this complex masterpiece into a reasonably understandable adaptation, but for doing so in an outdoors location, the sunshine at odds with the story's gloomy atmosphere.
The set itself is minimal, with two rooms representing the Earnshaws' bleak farmhouse, Wuthering Heights, and the Lintons' upmarket Thrushcross Grange. The only other 'prop' is a tree, engraved with the names Cathy and Heathcliff.
Much like the set, the production itself is a tale of two halves, with the actors coming into their own in the latter part. The story, adapted by award-winning writer Laura Turner, begins with the second generation Catherine Linton asking house-keeper Nellie Dean about her mysterious uncle Heathcliff.
She's curious to know of the relationship he shared with her late mother, given that their names are entwined on a tree. Thus the drama unfolds, as we are introduced to the young protagonist and hero, and the growing passion that consumes both, with tragic consequences.
Sadly for this reviewer, that passion that weaves its way through the novel is lacking, in the first half at least. While Cathy shows glimpses of the bad-tempered, wilful madam that Brontë so vividly painted, Heathcliff comes across as a rather pitiful creature, void of any deep feeling.
At times he appears almost comedic, as he shuffles about the stage. As Cathy herself might have declared: 'That is how I’m loved! Well, never mind. That is not my Heathcliff. I shall love mine yet and take him with me.' (See Chapter 15 of the book, of which I am a lifelong fan.)
Fortunately, the passion quota picks up after the interval, when Heathcliff returns from a few years spent abroad. Discovering his beloved Cathy has married Edgar Linton in his absence, Heathcliff turns his attentions to Linton’s sister, Isabella, delightfully portrayed as a spoilt, upper-class brat.
This Heathcliff is more like it: brooding, demonic, hell bent on revenge. And when Cathy dies in his arms, pleading forgiveness, it’s quite a tear-jerking moment – all is not lost.
A particular highlight is the scene wherein Cathy and Heathcliff are reunited. Despite the fact that she is now married to Linton, the pair are blissfully oblivious to the awkward tension they cause when they come face to face for the first time after so long apart. One can almost feel the audience cringe with embarrassment for Linton and Isabella, as they look on in disgust.
While the script is cleverly reworked for the stage by Turner, I would have liked to see the supernatural element played up as Heathcliff sinks further into despair and madness. But at least none of the key story lines or characters are omitted.
Given the Brontë family’s close ties to County Down – the Rev Patrick Bronte, father of the three sisters, came from nearby Rathfriland – it’s fitting that Banbridge District Council should celebrate their great works. 2016 marks the 200th anniversary of Charlotte Brontë’s birth, so perhaps Chapterhouse could return with a new production of Jane Eyre – and next time, a huge helping of passion.