Photo: Kevin Berne

A Musical Wuthering Heights at Berkeley Rep.

Interview w/ Leah Brotherhead

Written by:
Toba Singer
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Leah Brotherhead, as Catherine, is the masthead triple threat who helms Wuthering Heights’ stellar cast. Having grown up in Hull, a stone’s throw from the show’s Yorkshire setting, she thrums with the region’s temperament and historicity. Here, she probes her imagination about what Emily Brontë aimed to achieve with the novel that Emma Rice crafted into a musical, part whimsy and partly the shadow side of a story of property—landed and human—and the lèse-majeste rules enforced to keep women in their place.

Toba Singer: What is it about Yorkshire and its storied coal mining backdrop that makes it a fertile setting for Emily Brontë’s “Wuthering Heights,” and irresistible for more contemporary treatments, such as “Billy Elliot,” and this production?

Leah Brotherhead: What’s interesting about the Brontë sisters is that they were so isolated and their imaginations were incredible. I believe that their dad did take in travelers sometimes, who would stay with them, and I wonder if some of those passing people helped them with stories they told which Emily developed into the one that became Wuthering Heights? Did they have visitors come by, or was that just a coincidence? Liam Tamme, who plays Heathcliff, has a heritage that is Indian, Irish, and African, and there’s a bit with a lock of Cathy’s hair that he plaits with other hair that he may have said he recognizes as having come from Indian traditions. Where did Brontë get that from? I don’t know what it is about Yorkshiire! There’s the amazing beauty of the countryside, its weather, the bleakness, where there has been adversity for a long time in the north, efforts to destroy it during the 1980s [National Union of Mineworkers strike]. The north has come to struggle ever since. When there is struggle, it opens imaginations to seeing things differently, in a new light. After struggle, there is always fertile ground for people to use their imaginations to think beyond where they’ve been stuck. Amazing that the Brontë sisters managed to do that without leaving. I’ve lived in Berlin for last five years, in London for 10 before, and lots of that has broadened how I think and the people I’ve met, How amazing to develop those stories when you haven’t gone anywhere!

TS: Having grown up in the Broadway Musical era of Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Loewe, and Leonard Bernstein, I feared that Rock/Pop Opera might put the traditional Broadway musical out to pasture. But “Paradise Square” and “Wuthering Heights” have buoyed my hopes for a musical comedy renaissance. In Wuthering Heights, having onstage musicians with acting roles invites the public into a workshop atmosphere, melding two art forms. Has Wuthering Heights broken new ground in the musical comedy genre?

LB: I must admit I’m pretty new to musicals; I’ve never done one before; I’ve more done work in straight theater and TV. Ian Ross, who is the composer, is a singer, song-writer, and musician, based in Bristol, so, automatically if someone doesn’t come from that background, he brings his own flavor, own stamp, doesn’t think of doing something different, and that’s true of all the creatives in this production. Across the board, Emma Rice asks you to bring who you are to the table. It’s those kinds of artists Emma Rice prefers to work with, and she runs with it. The result is fresh and new. Let’s get all these people in the room and see what happens. I came on after the initial development; I joined the cast and so am kind of a newbie, taking the role of Catherine, which had been played initially by Lucy McCormack. When you join a project like this, you bring who you are and Lucy had brought a different flavor, so that wasn’t quite working with me, so we changed some things. Emma has a lot of people she’s had experience working with before. She was artistic director at London’s Globe Theatre for a year. I did a show there while she was director. As a result, she met lots of new people, and keeps an eye out.

TS: Did you do any special preparation for the audition?

LB: I came in and went whole hog. It’s always a gamble to see what someone is looking for. I did the big rocksong “Cathy’s Curse,” and the speech about Heathcliff after she marries Linton. I actually had Covid. I tested positive next day, the day I was opening in another show, “Gulliver’s Travels.” I had no inibitions. Just had to give it everything. I stayed home for a week, at which point I tested negative, and by union contract, you return to work once you’re negative.

TS: The Moors, as well as lead actors, dance in an impressive variety of styles: ballet, world dance, contact improv, and hip hop, some of it pretty punishing! Does the dance captain offer a daily company class, or are dancers left to their own devices? Are there understudies for the dancing parts if someone gets injured?

LB: Understudies are within the cast. Sam Archer, who plays Edgar Linton, was with Matthew Bourne’s company, where he danced the title role in “Edward Scissorhands.” A trained ballet dancer usually leads our warmups, depending on how many shows we have. If it’s a two-show day, maybe there’s just yoga, and then later in the week, a cardio. Sam developed a lot of the stage movement. Jordan Laviniere, who’s the lead dancer in the show, and formally trained in dance, will throw us in it, and we try to pick it up.

TS: Wuthering Heights is dense material to read as a novel, let alone absorb in a three-hour theater production. How were the interfaces built that connect the onstage signage that the actors hold up, the puppets that sub for actors, a set design that accommodates minute to minute scene changes in a single act, and a mobile set module that allows the audience to see, seamlessly, scenes with countervailing intentions, actors who change roles, characters who change identities, all in the same shared space, with musicians suddenly becoming players? Does the director come in with all of that charted, or does it develop from chats around a table that are exported to spread sheets, and engineered into an integrated libretto?

LB: Emma is a true visionist, and she first and foremost, is about telling the story. What is the most efficient way of telling the story? Rather than doing table work, where you’re getting into the backstory of, say, Hindley’s wife, getting into the weeds, as some actors like to develop their own backstories, and then get the director involved, Emma recognizes that some things require choices. Hindley Earnshaw (Tama Phethean) has her Essex accent. Why is that? When you have three hours to tell a story, none of that matters. And you need your light moments, so knowing who the person is and that children wouldn’t like that kind of person is sufficient. From what I know, there was a lot of table work having to do with what part of the story do we need to tell now, everything being very story led, with no time for a death scene. So when we moved to Berkeley, T. J. Holmes, who plays the doctor, added Little Linton in on chalk boards to give a premonition of what’s to come with solid info in a very story way, the most exciting and fun way. 

Emma’s way is about accessibility, not about being too clever or fancy, streamlining it, getting the joy as well as the drama, distilling the mad world of Wuthering Heights to three hours. Most people stop at the first act and don’t bother with the kids, or with the whole story, and so weirdly, the story, which many haven’t read in some time, and which so many think of as a romance novel, I think of as “Look at how damaged people can be if they have bad parents, the horrible rules of the time and how trapped people are within those societal rules.” Cathy is so lawless and passionate! What she says makes sense: “I’m going to marry Linton because I’ll be rich and be able to help Heathcliff. I’ll give him money.” That all goes awry, of course. She has no agency on her own; she’s property, belongs to her father and then to her husband. It was a joy to play her, she is incredibly present, responding to what is happening in the moment, to whatever is thrown at her. I wonder about how many women in those times murdered their husbands, because you only get to have control of your life again when you’re a widow! She is a joy to play because she responds to whatever is thrown at her. So fun to play.

TS: Does that quality mean that you can play with things a bit from show to show to keep it interesting for you and the cast?

LB: I do play with it a little bit. I’m of the thinking, I know what my character does in the next scene and where she goes, so I can’t go too far off. I had such a short rehearsal process. I jumped in and had a week’s rehearsal, myself and the Little Linton actor (Georgia Bruce. ) and Ricardo Castro (Robert/Moors) and I had one week’s rehearsal, leaving so much to find in my first weeks of the show. I had never done that before, and so just doing the show, I was 100 percent discovering things as I went along. It became a journey of discovery. I’m still discovering things as I go on. It was an incredibly daunting and an exciting process with this character. Catherine is just so full of unused, fevered energy; it always breaks her heart at the end. I just always want to escape into that glorious world because she is so trapped. What a life! I like Liam’s interpretation of Heathcliff, who goes off in those three years and no one knows where. In Liam’s head, Heathcliff goes off, works as an interpreter for the British military, becomes wealthy, and returns with a bit more status. Obviously, the show can seem whimsical at times, and you can forget what the story is about, and when you think about Emily, up there in the bleak Moors, writing about this woman who does go mad, you can appreciate her feeling of wanting to escape and see the world and there’s a lot of desperation! It kind of sucker punches you when you have it with the contrast, and that’s why the production is successful and accessible to a larger audience, because it hits home in this larger world.

TS: You’ve played roles with Wise Children but have also done TV work. We saw you in the series, “Bridgerton.” In what ways do you set the framework for your career’s trajectory and in what ways do the changing demands of roles and touring shape your life as an artist?

LB: My main desire, or ambition, is to just have longevity. That’s my goal, to be able to work as an actor, that be my sole job, which it is, and keep doing that, and become recognized within my own industry. I’ve tried to build my credits, work with people whom I find interesting, who are fun to work with, like Emma Rice. Having worked under her direction, I have found her work exciting. So I knew it would be great to jump on a project like this. It’s always just fun to stretch yourself. I’ve been working with comedy recently. I’m in a comedy series on Channel 4, and I’ll be shooting the second season when I get back. In “Hullraisers,” I play the lead. It’s a completely different genre, and so fun to dip in and out of different ways of working, a completely different project, but I’ve always loved theater, and to work with Emma whenever she is throwing an offer my way. It means I must deliver, be brave and make choices. I’m a jobbing actor really. I go where the work takes me and now it’s taken me to California, so that’s great and it’s fun! I’ll have a week off after we close here, and then six weeks working on Hullraisers.

Toba Singer

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