Following their recent run of Bagdad Cafe, UK theatre company Wise Children returns to the stage with Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. The production is directed and adapted by Emma Rice, the 2019 recipient of the UK Theatre Award for Outstanding Contribution to British Theatre. Wuthering Heights is a co-production with the National Theatre, Bristol Old Vic, and York Theatre Royal. Brontë’s classic tale focuses on the themes of love, revenge, and redemption on the Yorkshire moors after young Heathcliff is taken in by the Earnshaw family.
Opening first at Bristol Old Vic on October 20, Wuthering Heights will also be performed by Wise Children on a UK tour through May 2022. During a rehearsal break, I spoke with Katy Owen, who plays the roles of Isabella Linton and Linton Heathcliff in the show. As Owen is a longtime collaborator of Rice’s, I knew she would be a perfect guide for what we can expect from this production. Her stage credits include Wise Children (The Old Vic/UK tour), UBU Karaoke!, Rebecca (Kneehigh), and The Little Matchgirl and Other Happier Tales (Bristol Old Vic/Shakespeare’s Globe/UK tour). She’s also appeared on television in The Story of Tracy Beaker.
What was your first encounter with Wuthering Heights?
It was at school when I was doing my A-Levels at 16 or 17. My first impression was that it was tedious. I remember I didn’t engage with it properly or really understand what the story was about, because I was so naughty in class. But when the teacher said, “Who wants to read out loud?,” my hand would shoot up in the air. I wasn’t interested unless I could be the one reading it out loud and doing the voices.
I didn’t understand the story until I came to it now… I love it and I think it’s amazing.
With that first encounter, do you find it ironic to be doing this production?
If you could revisit a role in your career, which one would it be?
Without hesitation, I would go back to the Globe. Those shows were directed by Emma, who is directing Wuthering Heights. I played Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which is the ultimate dream for a mischievous actor like me: interfering with the audience and getting up close and personal. It was a perfect part for me. I also played Malvolio in Twelfth Night in drag, as a little man with a ginger wig and a moustache. I loved playing him because he’s the perfect mix [of] the comic and the tragic. He’s terribly abused as he’s made to feel that somebody is in love with him that isn’t. Embarrassed, he makes a fool of himself. I love parts like that.
What have you enjoyed most about your collaborations with Emma Rice?
We’ve worked together for a long time now. She is a real genius theatre-maker. She is extraordinarily good at casting in a surprising way. She believes anyone can play anything, whereas most theatre directors—if you don’t look like this, you can’t play it. She doesn’t buy into that at all. It’s freeing and you get to play all sorts of extraordinary roles. I’m 40 and in this version of Wuthering Heights, I play a 13-year-old boy. [Emma] goes for the spirit and energy from people.
Also, she is a nice woman. In a world where we’ve been through what we’ve been through, I think a lot of people realize that it’s important to be a nice person and to put nice people in a room who don’t have big egos. She chooses actors who are supportive and kind to each other. It’s joyful and I’m grateful everyday.
What are the challenges in tackling literary classics and mounting them as contemporary productions?
The novel is very long. People don’t want to sit in a theatre for 16 hours to watch a play. Also, starting to ease out of this pandemic, [people’s] concentration has gone down. We’re used to quick media and entertainment in a half-hour or one-hour programme tops. With Wuthering Heights, you have to figure out how to cut it while honoring the story and not losing the Gothic heart of it.
When I was covering Bagdad Cafe, Gareth Snook told me about puppetry as an interesting element that Emma incorporated. What would you say is unique about Wuthering Heights in her vision?
It is full of Emma’s trademark things. There are puppets, but they are minimal in this [production]. Usually in Wuthering Heights, a couple of characters will narrate. Instead of that, Emma has a chorus of amazing singers and actors who play the Yorkshire moor, the landscape. They narrate the show with close harmony singing. Sometimes it’s funny, scary, or moving.
What’s important to keep in mind when you’re playing two characters in a production?
I think actors are scared when they get multiple roles, that they’ve got to be different and ping out. That would be a concern of mine normally. These two characters are amazing. I’m playing a mother and her own child. Isabella, the mother dies after she’s given birth. I come back as a very sickly boy.
Isabella is very posh and naïve. She’s having a sexual awakening and can be very flirtatious. She gets her wish to have sex with Heathcliff and is treated appallingly. Her amazing journey is from a mollycoddled china doll to somebody who is very abused and does something brave. Her little boy, Linton, is very sick and is pampered. He wears a little curly wig and a tiny suit. He’ll get carried everywhere. He is also abused by Heathcliff and has a terrible life.
What can you preview for us about the music in the production?
The full band is in the room with us from day one [to] underscore everything. They flip into different modes. In this particular production, there is a lot of folky music, punk music, and punk-rocky music. You think you’re going one way, but then it surprises you in a different way with jagged, edgy, and weird stuff. It’s constant music and singing, basically Wuthering Heights the musical, but it’s not like a Broadway musical.
Do you have a story to share about rehearsal?
It’s been great! This is my first job coming out of the pandemic. I consider myself to be quite a tough person. I don’t cry easily, but I had to have a little room to myself on the first day. I walked away from the rehearsal room to go back to where I was staying. I cried because I was so relieved that I had a purpose again. My purpose wasn’t just to disinfect all of my cupboards everyday. I think it’s really important that we have art, this window up to the world. It’s an important job. I love making people laugh.