Wuthering Heights at Brighton Open Air Theatre: Review & Interview with Kane Magee

Wuthering Heights is often mistaken for just another 19th Century love story, when in fact Emily Brontë’s one and only novel is far from the picturesque English dramas we are used to from that period. A tale of intense love, loss, and bitter and cruel vengeance, Wuthering Heights is an atmospheric, gothic story set in the wild of the Yorkshire moors.

To relocate the stage adaptation of Wuthering Heights into the pretty and relaxed pocket of Hove, where the Brighton Open Air Theatre is settled, risks losing the dark and oppressive atmosphere that gives so much to the piece. After all, the moors themselves are a character in their own right. 

When themes ran their darkest and light was at its lowest, the sun began to dip below the trees and their branches creaked through the windy evening, and the desired foreboding and mysterious texture the play requires was finally fulfilled.

Miles Davies Photography

Miles Davies Photography

The cast of 11 was given no easy task of doubling up on characters: a real exercise in their flexibility and skill as performers. But, this particular production from Identity Theatre Company boasted a strong and talented cast, with every actor balancing the darkness of the script with its moments of sharp and sarcastic humour extremely well. 

From hilarious disdain for the North from the pompous Mr. Lockwood (Andy Bell), the comically whimpering figure of Linton Heathcliff (Daniel Walford), to the strangely heartwarming relationship between troubled Heathcliff and narrator Nelly Dean, these unexpected moments of humour were vital in a play so grim.

Kane Magee, starring as Heathcliff, brought the character to life with maturity and intensity that belied his age, and cut an intimidating figure throughout.

Phoebe Cook, as the ill-fated Cathy Earnshaw, convincingly embodied the fractured and often cruel central character to compelling effects. The dance sequences that both Magee and Cook played out added a contemporary element to the narrative and showcased their versatility as performers.

Other highlights of the production included the end of each act being brought to a fittingly haunting close by singers Jo Simpson, Helen Toplis and Nancy Wesby, performing traditional arrangements of The Unquiet Grave and Low Down in the Broom.

Overall, a dark, memorable, and confident production of Brontë’s novel, brought to the stage by a solid cast and tight direction from Nettie Sheridan and Gary Cook.

I spoke with Kane Magee on how he prepared for the role of Heathcliff and the new directions Identity Theatre Company took when bringing Wuthering Heights to life.

How did you get the role of Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights?

It’s a funny story, actually. I was never meant to even audition for it. The audition building has loads of rooms for rehearsals, and through the window I saw my friend who was in the show I was currently rehearsing for. All the chairs are pushed to the back and the two directors, Gary Cook and Nettie Sheridan, are sitting at a desk. I say hi to my friend and ask him what’s going on; he says he’s auditioning for Wuthering Heights. I wish him luck and leave him to it.

Later that day, I get a message from my director saying she’s put me forward for… you guessed it: Wuthering Heights. I go to the audition, prepared to audition Edgar Linton and Hindley Earnshaw, because Heathcliff was already cast. Nettie then asks me if I want to read for Heathcliff because the actor pulled out. I say sure, they’re all great characters, I’d love to. So, I read for him and she said don’t worry about reading for the others. I got the part. 

Miles Davies Photography

Miles Davies Photography

Did this production do anything new with the play?

Yes; it developed key scenes using mime, an example being Cathy haunting Lockwood near the start of the play, where Lockwood is in her old room to stay the night and she appears at the window.

We also had choreographed dance and movement by Dena Lague at the beginning and end of the piece, the main sequence being the grave sequence at the start where Heathcliff pulls Cathy out of the grave. That movement encapsulates their relationship, highlighting the tumultuous nature of it, all the highs and lows. It ends with Cathy wandering the moors alone and Heathcliff left in despair. 

Each act was closed with haunting, harmonised live vocal arrangements of The Unquiet Grave and Low Down in The Broom. The cast doubled up roles as well, either playing themselves as children, their own children, or another relative, which created a real ensemble piece and provided challenging opportunities for the actors. Cathy, as she becomes more deranged, has some brilliant choreographed pieces of movement to help depict her decline and consequent death.

How did you prepare for a role like Heathcliff?

I gathered and watched as much source material as I could. I watched most adaptations of Wuthering Heights; I got the book. A lot of Heathcliff’s life is discussed on the Internet. Where did he come from? What happened to him when he was young? Where did he go for three years and get all that money?

There’s always been that air of supernatural to him, like he’s a devil. Everyone thinks Wuthering Heights is a romantic love story and it’s definitely not. It’s a story of betrayal, torment and revenge, Heathcliff is the essence of that. He is not a nice person and the things he does in exacting his revenge are beyond awful.

To really understand him I had to create a unique story for him. In my opinion, he must have been heavily abused when young or seen bad things that made him act the way he did: hyper-aggressive and vengeful, not flinching when Hindley beats him. He doesn’t trust people, he holds onto things, he doesn’t forgive (unless it is Cathy) and he doesn’t forget. 

His persistence in his pursuit of revenge was far-reaching. Who goes away for three years only to come back and get back at everyone who wronged him and then punish their children for 20 years? He’s not normal. He doesn’t fit in with society. 

However, I wanted people to sympathise with him. I believed everything he did came from a place of pain. Cathy drove him to do what he did; if she hadn’t betrayed him then events would have played out so differently, and maybe they would have lived happily ever after. But, this is not a love story. I could feel empathy towards the character because I had a lot of bad stuff happen when I was young that has always stayed with me, much like him. But, I try and use it positively in my work.

There were three versions of Heathcliff: young, scrubbed up, and older. I like to experiment with physicality and voice, so I devised a different movement for each, different tics, different ways of speaking. 

He moves from an awkward, angsty teen to a scorned and vengeful young man to then become a tormented and broken beast. I used weight to depict these transitions. Heathcliff is heavy and grounded, very much so when he is older. Weight came into play with how he spoke, moved, stood, sat; everything.

To prepare before shows, I would listen to period music and practise moving and changing as him in each version of the character. I’m a little method, a little Stanislavskian, and a little Meisner. I like to let the text I’m working with move me. 

My own experiences and pain helped me really get into him and how he thinks. I was crying backstage at points as I pushed it far (when Cathy died at the end, for instance). It’s a dangerous method, but I’m used to it. I find it so liberating and medicinal. I have to make it real. If I don’t feel it, then I’m cheating myself and I’m cheating the audience.

Gary Cook and Nettie Sheridan were fantastic with me throughout the process. I told them to push me and work me hard as that gets the best out of me, and they did. 

Do you have any advice for young actors getting into the industry?

Work hard and find the right opportunities. Get involved in drama clubs, workshops, watch films and shows (which I don’t do enough of). Look for opportunities, both online and local. It’s about finding what works for you. A phrase I like is “opportunity leads to more opportunity”. You have to be prepared to do what others won’t: working harder than the rest, taking advantage and making the most of what comes your way. Be a sponge and learn. Film your own stuff. A good book to read would be The Slight Edge by Jeff Olson; my old teacher Will Ellis recommended it to me and it’s great. 

What’s your dream role? (It doesn’t have to be an existing one!)

Ha! James Bond would be cool. I’m a good bit too young right now, but maybe one day. If not, then I’d love to do something at the Globe or National. Hamlet, maybe. Something where I can go a little crazy like Heathcliff. 

Where are you going next?

London, hopefully. There’s a few plays potentially on the horizon but at the moment I’m seriously considering drama school full time. I started acting late at almost 22 and I’m now 24. You definitely don’t need to go to drama school, but I still feel very raw technically and it’s a nice springboard into the industry. I also want a degree; I dropped out of a Mathematics BSc after one year as it was the wrong time to pursue it. But, now I’ve found myself and want to dedicate myself fully to acting and I can get a job doing something I love.

Written By Lois Zoppi