The Sexiest Way to Study Literature: Yes Please Heathcliff!


A friend of mine invited me to attend the forthcoming production of Wuthering Heights at Riverside Theatres with them recently and I got very excited. Of course it had nothing to do with the oh-so-very sexy looking Heathcliff (played by Ross Balbuziente) in the advertising…..It’s all about the literature darling…..

Truly though – it really is all about the literature or more accurately the stage adaptation of a favourite novel. We see a lot of screen adaptations of literary novels but not as many theatrical productions. This is because adapting a novel to the stage can be a very difficult process and some are much more successful than others.

The most obvious success stories are the big musicals like Les Misérables and Wicked. I think people often forget that Wicked was firstly a novel by Gregory Maguire before it was developed into a highly successful stage musical. Children’s theatre is filled with adaptations of books to the stage – think The Very Hungry Caterpillar or David Walliams’ Mr Stink. Generally speaking it’s easier to adapt a children’s book to the stage than it is a major work of literary fiction. But the adaptation process creates a whole new beast and necessarily so. The primary difference between a novel and a stage play is that a novel is a private pleasure, there is space to verbalise motivation and complex emotions. A stage play on the other hand is a communal, live experience and it is this live experience of motivations, plot and emotions that creates a new and different version of the work being adapted. It’s an opportunity to explore your favourite characters at close hand and in the flesh so to speak, and to be a witness to another person’s creative vision of the work.

There have been a number of adaptations of note over recent years. The Sydney Theatre Company’s adaptation of Kate Grenville’s The Secret River had some purists upset over missed elements from the novel but is considered an essential addition to the national cultural identity. The National Theatre’s adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was an excellent production and a superb way to experience the real Frankenstein as Shelley meant it to be. Animal Farm by George Orwell was adapted by shake & stir Theatre Company, as was 1984. Both productions were critically acclaimed and toured the country. Now the shake & stir Theatre Company who hail from Brisbane are touring Wuthering Heights, giving us all a chance to see these master adaptors at work.

shake & stir specialise in works for education so if you happen to be studying Wuthering Heights or know someone who is, or you just love the book, or you’ve always wondered what the fuss was about, don’t miss this opportunity to see it live. And what’s not to love! A gothic story of passion, obsession, revenge and heartbreak. The production has been hailed as sexy, evocative, thrilling and visually stunning. Quite frankly I can’t wait!

Wuthering Heights as a work within itself is still relevant to today’s contemporary audiences/readers. It was relatively unsuccessful when it was written, as it didn’t appeal to the usual Gothic Victorian sensibilities. Emily Brontë’s characters were seen as too wild, too passionate to be taken seriously. The text makes great use of symbolism and the supernatural which lends a spooky flavour to the whole. It also tends to be a psychological drama and should not be put down as a simple romantic novel. It explores a host of themes that include elements of child abuse, alcoholism, revenge, isolation, nature, the role of women in 19th Century society and of course, love. It will be interesting to see the stagecraft of the play, to see how these themes and elements are portrayed and communicated to the audience.

Of course seeing the play should not take the place of reading the book, but the exploration of another person’s creative vision of the work can offer insight, enjoyment and deeper understanding of the text and there have been studies to prove it. To be in the same room as all that heartbreak, anger and passion can only enhance our experience of the written work. This young and contemporary theatre company produce energetic works that appeal to teenagers and young adults and Wuthering Heights will be no exception.

And of course there’s always – Heathcliff……sexy as……..

(This article was written for Riverside Theatres and published on their website riversideparramatta.com.au)

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