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The Theatreguide.London Review

Wuthering Heights
Lyric Hammersmith Theatre     Spring 2009

Emily Bronte's 19th-century English novel transplanted to India and presented in the high-melodrama style of a Bollywood movie - to which the logical question is 'Why?' and the evident answer 'Why not?'

The English class prejudices on which Bronte's story is built find a counterpart in India's lingering sense of caste, and the over-the-top passions of Bollywood offer no real clash with Bronte's near-gothic mode.

Besides, this production from the touring Tamasha company will attract and serve Asian audiences in ways a more conventional staging might not.

For the rest of us, though, it will remain a pleasant curiosity, the cultural crossover illuminating neither the novel nor the new setting in any particular way.

Though somewhat stripped-down, the core of Bronte's plot remains (If you don't want to know the story, skip the rest of this paragraph). Poor boy is brought into a modestly well-off household, where he and the daughter of the house form a bond as more than siblings if less than lovers. She grows up to marry rich, he goes off to make his fortune and return for her, strewing vengeance in his wake. She dies, and he lives on in pain.

Bronte told her story through flashbacks from a fairly awkward frame, and adapter Deepak Verma has found a simpler and more theatrically effective way of doing the same thing. The new narrator whose identity you will probably guess before it is revealed - takes us briskly through the story, sometimes replacing whole chapters of Bronte with a single line, and allowing the actors to focus on the key - that is to say, most highly passionate - scenes.

In the Bollywood style, the adaptation includes several songs, pre-recorded by other singers for the actors to mime to. Curiously, few of them have an Indian flavour, either in music or lyrics (by Felix Cross and Sheema Mukherjee) or in singing style - indeed, the strongest influence on most of them is clearly Andrew Lloyd Webber.

(Other things about the production might remind you of Western rather than Asian sources - a musical number at a camel race footnotes the Ascot Gavotte in My Fair Lady, and the final tableau is an open salute to the end of the iconic 1939 movie.)

Pushpinder Chani plays the Heathcliff figure with appropriate dark surliness, though a structure that sends him offstage a lot doesn't give him the chance to build up a sense of obsessive love for the Cathy figure.

Youkti Patel makes her dark, a bit of a fortune-hunter and capable of moments of sheer bitchiness, which might disconcert those with a sentimentalised vision of Bronte's heroine.

Shammi Aulakh as the narrator and Adeel Akhtar as his rapt listener add a lot to the mood, as does Rina Fatania as a motherly servant.

It is an accomplishment for director Kristine Landon-Smith that the experiment works at all, and a tribute to her vision and guidance of the cast that it works as well as it does.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of Wuthering Heights - Lyric Hammersmith 2009


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