Wuthering Heights

A Bollywood musical version of Emily Bronte's beloved tale is an engaging idea in principle.

Sarah Silverman

A Bollywood musical version of Emily Bronte’s beloved tale is an engaging idea in principle. The melodramatic story of “Wuthering Heights” ostensibly fits into the Bollywood style, and the comparison made between 18th century Rajasthan and 19th century England inevitably prompts reflection on the ways in which ethnicity and class now mingle together in contempo Britain’s complicated multiculture. The production also stands to capitalize on the popularity of Indian-themed pop culture post-“Slumdog Millionaire.” But this new touring version falls at many key hurdles; weak music, lyrics and performances and muddy direction make for a lumbering 160 minutes.

The story is told in flashback, narrated by mysterious tramp Baba (Shammi Auukh) to Changoo (Divian Ladwa), a young boy he meets in a camel market. Bronte’s Cathy becomes headstrong spice merchant’s daughter Shakuntala (Youkti Patel), while Heathcliff is Krishan (Pushpinder Chani), a low-caste boy adopted into the family who develops a lifelong bond with Shakuntala.

The latter is enticed into the wealthy world of the high-caste Vijay (Gary Pillai) and eventually marries him, but her head is turned several years later when Krishan returns to the community a wealthy man, just in time for her tragic death. A clever 11th-hour plot twist ties together Baba with the story he’s telling and enables a somewhat happy ending.

Spectacle and broad-strokes storytelling are favored over character development, but this seems a faulty choice because lack of access to the characters’ psyches makes them come across (particularly in these underpowered performances) as one-sided and somewhat facile.

The Bollywood elements, which were presumably intended to add interest and steer the audience’s relationship to the material, are underplayed. That the musical numbers are all prerecorded — including vocals — could have been played as an ironic wink, but it remains unclear if auds are meant to actually believe the performers are singing live. Similarly, it’s unclear whether Felix Cross and Sheema’s repetitious music and Cross’ simplistic lyrics (“Me with you and you with me/Be whoever we want to be/Only you can turn the key …”) are intentionally laughable.

Set design and staging choices further hinder engagement, though this is mitigated mildly by the loveliness of Sue Mayes’ silken costumes. The stage is made up of a series of slanted diagonal pathways leading up to a raised playing area. The stage floor becomes, unnecessarily, almost exclusively Baba and Changoo’s domain, squashing most of the action onto the narrow pathways. Director Kristine Landon-Smith frequently hides key moments in remote corners of the stage and unforgivably places supernumeraries in front of the action during Shakuntala’s death scene.

This is not the first foray into Bollywood-style stagings for lead producer Tamasha, a leading British Asian theater org best known for premiering Ayub Khan-Din’s play “East Is East,” which went on to become an acclaimed film. The company’s well-received 1998 tuner “Fourteen Songs, Two Weddings and a Funeral,” an adaptation of a Bollywood film, used many of the same conventions (lip synching to a recorded track, for example). Here, however, the creative team has not found a way to satisfyingly transpose the historic story into its new format; the production seems lost between worlds.

Wuthering Heights

Lyric Hammersmith Theater, London; 500 seats; £27 $40 top

  • Production: A Tamasha Theater Company, Oldham Coliseum Theater presentation, in association with the Lyric Hammersmith, of a musical in two acts with music by Felix Cross and Sheema, lyrics by Cross, book and original concept by Deepak Verma, based on the novel by Emily Bronte. Additional text, Sudha Bhuchar. Directed by Kristine Landon-Smith. Choreography, Nikki Woollaston.
  • Crew: Sets and costumes, Sue Mayes; lighting, Peter Harrison; sound, Mike Furness. Opened May 1, 2009. Reviewed May 2. Running time: 2 HOURS, 20 MIN.
  • Cast: Krishan - Pushpinder Chani Shakuntala - Youkti Patel Vijay, Singh - Gary Pillai Ayah - Rina Fatania Yusuf - Adeel Akhtar Ayah Baba - Shammi Auukh Changoo - Divian Ladwa
  • Music By: