I first read Wuthering Heights when I was sixteen, not long after I had moved to rural Dorset from the tropical swelter of Singapore. Until then England had been an escapist fantasy to me; we'd come most summers to visit my grandparents who lived on the edge of the New Forest but my grasp of the place went as far as penny sweets, double decker buses and the occasional wild pony spotted on a forest walk.
I don't remember how I came to reading it; it wasn't on the syllabus or anything worthy like that. What I do remember is lying for hours in the bath (one of the many upsides of the winter experience), the near transparent pages of my Penguin Classics edition limp in the warm, wet air, and me almost as wild with passion and despair as Cathy. I don't think I'd ever been so transported by anything before in my life... A country which famously outlawed chewing gum didn't offer much in the way of that, you see. But it was so utterly intoxicating to my susceptible, teenaged self, the intractable greyness of it all. The dark, Yorkshire hills that have faced down millennia and that deep, terrifying, all-encompassing love. It's thanks to that bath-time experience that I suffered quite so many catastrophic heartaches in my twenties.
Revisiting Cathy now, with my forties in clear view, I miss how immense everything felt then (I certainly miss being able to spend an entire evening in the bath with a novel for company). That's why I think Wuthering Heights tugs at the hearts of generation after generation of readers. The vastness of it all. Wherever in the world you are, something about the eternal rocks and the enduring, crazy love of Brontê's imagination makes you want to live and love forever.
Cathy and Heathcliff are, however, fairly unlikeable people.There's too much mess in their lives for them to bother with being nice. But they exist in a place of epic emotion, an absoluteness of the heart, and it's that which makes us yearn for them and their experiences. Especially, I think, in today's adrenalin-fuelled, easy come, easy go world.
When we did some R&D for this production with the members of the REP company, I was surprised to see that these young people were living and breathing the same vast emotions that crackle through Brontë's moors. Love, death and suffering are as real to them as they were to Brontë, sixteen year-old me, Cathy and Heathcliff. So that's what this adaptation had to be: a play about the truly epic things every one of us lives, no matter how small, or big, a village we come from.
It's also true that this narrative exists completely across cultures. There's something distinctly Eastern in Brontê's imagination of what happens after death, her vision that this life is only a stepping stone along the way to a vast ocean of experience beyond. Time and time again in the book, the iconic lovers (who are actually never lovers in the narrative) yearn for death, longing for a time when they will finally lie together, deep in the earth:
"Catherine Earnshaw, may you not rest as long as I am living; you said I killed you - haunt me then! I know that ghosts have wandered on earth. Be with me always"
I have taken that idea and run with it, weaving into this adaptation a backdrop of reincarnation, transience of souls and dark matter... Hindu cosmology, in effect. I hope the purists won't be too put out.
My version of this story isn't Victorian Yorkshire, nor is it 2015. The actual starting point of my retelling is the moment in the narrative when Heathcliff unearths Cathy's grave after Edgar's death. He does this because he needs to see her. Brontê has him pull the side out of their coffin, so they can at last be together. So, I've taken Heathcliff at his word and given him space where he and Cathy can be together, a kind of wish-fulfilment... I've given him Cathy's haunting.
Wuthering Heights is part of the National Youth Theatre 2015 REP Season running at the Ambassadors Theatre until the 4th December.