'Be brave, never be boring': Emma Rice and Lucy McCormick on Wuthering Heights

Interview by Laura Biggs


We had the great opportunity to interview Emma Rice, the director of the modern theatre adaptation of Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights, and Lucy McCormick, the innovative actress who plays Cathy. Read on to find out what inspired them, their personal experience with the novel and their advice for current students studying Wuthering Heights.


Emma Rice:

1. Could you tell us about the first time you read Wuthering Heights and how it impacted you?

I’m afraid that this is going to be a long answer! My relationship with Wuthering Heights started in my childhood, long before I even attempted to read it. My family were keen campers and many a wet weekend in the 1970s was spent shivering in a tent. One trip was to the Yorkshire Moors where it was decided that we would try and find Top Withens: the house said to have inspired Wuthering Heights. The walk was genuinely challenging, but the effort was worth it and Wuthering Heights captured my imagination.

In the 1980s I was a gothic punk. I left school at 16, dyed my hair blue and put on black. Smack bang in the middle of teenage anguish, the gothic aesthetic was a way to display my grief and express my rage. In fact, I had very little to be angry about having been born into a loving family, but I did have my griefs. When I was 12, I lost my best friend to leukaemia. In that chapter of illness and tragedy, I lost not just my friend, but my protective cloak of invulnerability. The world felt hostile and scary and I feared I was only one moment away from intolerable loss. I was scared of death. Simple as that. Not my own, I was scared of losing those I loved.

And so, it was with this internal backdrop that I went to sixth form and finally read Wuthering Heights. Until then, I had struggled in education, slipping through lessons without anything really touching the sides. Then came Wuthering Heights and everything changed. The book was intoxicating, and I loved it with a passion. My blood stirred, my mind fizzed and my energy popped. This didn’t feel like work, this felt like jumping off a craggy cliff and flying. How could I resist a world filled with ghosts, betrayals and passions? I loved its drama and its intrigue but most I loved a story that spanned not only generations but life and death. I didn’t have a literal ghost knocking at my window, but I was haunted by memories that knocked at my soul. In my teenage mind, I was Heathcliff. I was misunderstood, angry and grieving — I wanted people to feel, see and understand my pain. Emily Brontë saw me. She felt death everywhere and understood loss as sharply as I felt my own.

But, life moves on and I didn’t think about Wuthering Heights again until a few years ago.

In 2016, I was horrified by scenes from the refugee camps at the Calais Jungle and enraged by the negotiations about how many unaccompanied children the UK was willing to take whilst not actually taking any — something triggered in my brain. Wasn’t Heathcliff an unaccompanied child? Wasn’t he found on the Liverpool docks and taken in by Earnshaw? My instincts itching, I pulled out my old copy and started to read. This time, the book fell into a very different soul. No longer intoxicated by impossible passions and unresolved griefs, I saw a story not of romance but of brutality, cruelty and revenge. This was not a gothic romance, this was a tragedy; a tragedy of what might happen if, as individuals as well as a society, we allow cruelty to take hold. “Be careful what you seed” my pen wrote, and it kept writing.

I told you it was a long answer, but that is how this amazing book has impacted me over the years!


2. Did you experience any challenges in adapting the literary classic into a modern production?

I don’t really worry too much about challenges — I love trying to do the impossible! I suppose the hardest thing was trying to condense the story into a few short hours and to make it clear and entertaining. It is a super complicated plot, so I needed to help the audience follow who is who. I am particularly pleased with the chalk boards which show the characters names and remind us how important literacy is if there is to be social mobility and freedom.


3. In the original, Nelly Dean was the narrator, can you tell us more about your decision to replace her with The Moor?

I cut Nelly Dean because she felt too domestic and that is the one thing I didn’t want this production to be. I wanted the characters to feel like gods, not like busy bodies! I didn’t, however, want to lose Nelly Dean’s wit, so I looked for a way to elevate the narrative voice whilst still keeping the razor-sharp humour. I laid the form of a Greek tragedy over the narrative and created a chorus of The Yorkshire Moor. It is The Moor that tells my version of Wuthering Heights. Singing and dancing as one, they warn us that “A scatter of yellow stars might seem to welcome hope, but the adder slides beneath.” This production is epic, the characters superhuman: Catherine, Heathcliff and Hareton the Gods of Chaos, Revenge and Hope. Nelly Dean would have kept us tethered to the stove and I wanted this production to fly. The Yorkshire Moor plants our feet in the soil and pulls down the stars.


4. Do you have any advice for students that are currently studying Wuthering Heights?

Don’t be scared. It’s just a story and you have every right to understand and enjoy it. Don’t be reverent but do think about it being relevant. That is what unlocked the book for me.

In the last 12 months there have been 2,756 applications from unaccompanied children claiming asylum in the UK. Who knows how many others have vanished into dark corners of Europe and the UK, lost to traffickers and abusers. I have used this production to pose the question that perhaps, if we chose to seed compassion and kindness, we might have a fighting chance of creating a future filled with hope rather than fear.

Everything is personal and everything is political. Be brave, never be boring and enjoy the ride.


Lucy McCormick:

1. Could you tell us about the first time you read Wuthering Heights and how it impacted you?

I read it in my early twenties. I loved the gothic drama of it all and it's been exciting to revisit it. I was especially struck this time by its darkness and violence. And Emma keeps reminding us that it's not a love story, although it's often cited as such! I love how dramatic and wild the story is. Although the characters are brutal and unlikeable, so often I still end up having a lot of affection for them. Of course, when you act as one of these characters it’s especially important not to judge them, and to find an understanding of why they react and behave in their own particular way.  


2. Is there anything specific about Cathy that drew you to the role? Additionally, did you find any challenges in portraying the character?

Cathy is a complex character — she's definitely personally flawed, but she’s also stuck within a patriarchal system in which she really doesn't have many choices or power of her own. I wanted to understand her journey, and for the audience to understand her as well. It's fun to play Cathy because she doesn't really have a filter — she goes through extreme emotions and is extremely changeable — which is exciting and exhausting! I was drawn to Emma’s process of collaboration and creating an ensemble performance. Collaboration in theatre is everything, but it’s unusual to find a director who is as willing as Emma to trust her actors and be so influenced by them in the room. 


3. Is there a key message for students to take away from the play?

I think the story has a lot to say about pride, prejudice and jealousy. In our production, we also pull out comedic elements from the story. Comedy and tragedy can exist side by side and are very often linked in all aspects of life! I hope the production also invites students to think about imaginative ways of telling stories and shows that working as an ensemble creates opportunities for everyone, each person adds to the production and has their part to play.


Photo credit: Steve Tanner

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