A BROODING tale of obsessive love and revenge, Wuthering Heights is a shocking and evocative masterpiece of literature.

Emily Brontë’s story of wild passion and cruelty set among the stark Yorkshire moors, still has the power to shock, 170 years since it was published.

A new retelling of the familiar classic being staged at the Oxford Playhouse this week captures its haunting magic, exploring its traumatic themes but with an injection of humour.

Presented by the Inspector Sands company in a co-production with the Playhouse, it is set in the early part of the story and told through the eyes and memories of housekeeper Nelly, alone in her kitchen during a long night of the soul.

“We’re interested in treading the line between darkness and comedy where the most human of experiences seem to lie,” says director Lucinka Eisler – who created the adaptation with fellow founder member of the company, Ben Lewis.

“It is its contemporary resonances we are most drawn to, so the visual world, script and physical language all have a playful nod to a contemporary perspective on this classic.

Oxford Mail: Wuthering Heights at the Oxford Playhouse. Picture by Alex Brenner

Wuthering Heights. Picture by Alex Brenner

“Brontë’s novel illustrates the way violence, beliefs and family dynamics are passed down from generation to generation. In turn we look at the way the story we have inherited from Brontë speaks to the huge risks of ignoring history.”

It is certainly a departure from the much-loved book.

She says: “Often the adaptations focus on the story of Heathcliff and Catherine, as if the story ends there, when actually the novel is barely halfway through at that point.

“What we are really interested in is the way things get passed down through the generations – be that habits, beliefs, behaviour or trauma. We’re looking at the love story between Catherine and Heathcliff, the family dynamics it develops within, how that impacts on the next generation and what that tells us about the way we continue to replicate cycles of behaviour unless we really look at them, challenge them and learn from them.”

Why did she feel the need to revisit the much-loved tale?

“We originally developed the adaptation during the year of the Brexit referendum and we were stunned by the parallels of the story between Heathcliff and particularly his adopted brother Hindley and some of the thinking that was around at that time – and still is around in relation to immigration – in terms of the idea of a hostile environment, people in charge who do nothing to create the possibility of harmony and the perception of having to vie for resources.

Oxford Mail: Wuthering Heights at the Oxford Playhouse. Picture by Alex Brenner

Wuthering Heights. Picture by Alex Brenner

“In the case of Wuthering Heights it’s about vying for the love of a father whereas in the UK it’s this sense of having to fight for scarce resources, which is obviously such a massive misconception. It’s about scapegoating and looking at Heathcliff in that context.”

Taking and twisting the role of Heathcliff is actor Ike Bennett. “In this production we touch on race, mental abuse, physical abuse and domestic abuse,” he says.

“It’s basically asking ‘How does trauma continue through the generations?

“We’re also looking at black trauma. I’m not the only person of colour in the cast and we’re exploring how black-on-black violence is viewed through a contemporary lens. With all the stuff that’s going on in London at the moment within the black community, how does that relate?”

He goes on: “In the novel there’s some ambiguity about his origins, they taunt him and call him a traveller, Nelly alludes to him being the son of an “Indian Queen,” he’s found wandering the docks of Liverpool. In our version, our reading of Heathcliff is that he’s black. I’m a dark-skinned black man of African descent and we’re contextualising him towards that.

Oxford Mail: Wuthering Heights at the Oxford Playhouse. Picture by Alex Brenner

“We’re also exploring more of his childlike qualities and you really see the journey from his time at Wuthering Heights to when he went away, so there’s some backstory to that. When he comes back he’s a changed man. He’s literally a man on a mission. Those are probably the biggest differences you are going to see in this production as opposed to previous ones.”

Lucinka goes on: “It’s a show which treads that line that Emily Brontë does so brilliantly of intense drama, hilarity and awkward human comedy,” she says.

“It has a really exciting sound design, so there’s a lot of music. It’s also visually very captivating and there are these very vivid, very passionate human stories at the heart of it.”

The genius of Brontë’s enduring story underlines it all.

Oxford Mail: Wuthering Heights at the Oxford Playhouse. Picture by Alex Brenner

“Her writing feels like that of someone who isn’t filtering herself,” says Lucinka explaining the longevity of the book. There’s something extraordinarily intuitive in her writing. She’s an incredible craftswoman but she also taps into something so fundamental in human nature. She was absolutely radical in her time, and she still feels radical now. The questions she raises about why we behave the way we do are so challenging to the ways in which we like to think about how society works.

“Also she tackles really difficult subjects. She speaks about violence, she speaks of loneliness and social isolation – she speaks about all the ugly stuff that we want to hide and she does it with beauty and comedy. Who wouldn’t want to revisit that again and again?

“She allows us not only to examine ourselves, but she does it with levity and class. To have the chance to see our own world through those eyes is such a gift.”

Wuthering Heights is at the Oxford Playhouse until Saturday. Tickets from oxfordplayhouse.com