SHAKE and Stir Theatre Company are raucous on stage: loud, bright and visceral. This year’s earlier production of George Orwell’s 1984 showed how far society might go to control its citizens. This time they’ve slipped back a few hundred years to retell Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. Nothing is safe on this moor.

It doesn’t matter where you are starting from — Kate Bush incanting the title as a chorus, one of the myriad television or film adaptations, or even its origins as a novel — the story of Wuthering Heights has a point of entry for every generation.

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Yet the love story between Heathcliffe and Cathy isn’t the only thing driving this story along.

So what makes Shake and Stir’s version different?

“Their courageous choice to cast a man. I just relished the idea, the offer of investigating a Georgian housekeeper,” Gerry Connolly says.

“The staff of these big houses were uneducated and superstitious, and they influenced the children of the estate with their stories of ghosts. Heathcliffe believes in ghosts, and there is a sense that this is a ghost story.”

Connolly is a familiar, albeit often heavily-disguised face. With costumes designed by Leigh Buchanan, the facade extends from broach-covered neck to dainty ankle.

“She feels very fleshed out, and very gothic in her black housekeeper’s gown. She looks like Mrs Danvers in Rebecca,” he says.

“But she’s not like a sketch. It’s not parody. It’s not titillation. It’s not a kind of cabaret. She lives and breathes and tells the story, she participates in scenes and becomes emotionally involved, whatever the scene requires.

“It’s kind of apt that I’m playing a female role; the narration has a duality anyway.”

Duality runs through the whole production: the fate of both houses — Thrushcross Grange and Wuthering Heights — the loved and the betrayed, the rulers and the servants. And a circularity: we keep returning again and again to Nelly.

“This production has a narrative style with a masculine frame and a feminine centre. I play her completely asexually,” Connolly says.

“She is, as a housekeeper, a completely neutral figure. I have played many female roles before: housekeeper, nursemaid, mother. But I suppose I haven’t played many feminine women. Having played the Queen and Margaret Thatcher, I haven’t had to use any female sexuality.

“Yet the femininity is present in Nelly as it is in any gender: a caring, nurturing side.”

Divining the feminine is only a fraction of Connolly’s inspiration. Real women have also left their mark.

“Here I am, walking in women’s shoes. In part, it’s a tribute to my Aunt Nelly, who would have been 100 next year,” he says.

“I’ve also decided to make her Irish; she sits somewhere between my grandmother, who was from the north, and nuns who taught me in primary school and who were from all over Ireland.

“Her accent is a sort of wander through Ireland. That’s also how I approached the femininity of it, to be very detailed in and at the front of my mouth; it becomes like a veneer over my own voice. I just speak into the head more. Like so!”

Listening to the snatches of dialogue that follow is like listening to an older woman sharing her confidence. It’s a higher register of Connolly’s own voice, but definitely not falsetto. Yet it’s a voice that could easily seduce.

“We don’t know to what extent her version is trustworthy. She’s not just observing, she’s actively participating,” Connolly says.

“Therefore, the play is like a kind of giant physics experiment, what happens when you throw this much energy into these circumstances.”

Whether Connolly is muse or conductor for this energy is unclear. Not so the audience’s role.

“They’ll cast themselves as society. The Nelly role. Looking on. Observing. Judging,” he says.

“They’ll also be the conscience of society. Not just of then, but now. Heathcliffe is a relentless and brutal figure; he takes no prisoners. The audience will feel like they are on the moor, with a storm raging on stage; they’ll feel the elements.”

Yet Connolly, with all his faces and personas, can’t but help let his natural humour seep in to unwind from the reality of the production.

“Back then it was sick — cough — die. Nowadays, there wouldn’t be so much hand-wringing and destitution, or tears before bedtime. It would be Zoloft, Bikram Yoga and Primal Screaming,” he says.

And his advice if none of those worked?

“A cup of tea, in true housekeeper style.”

Wuthering Heights runs from October 1 to 18 in Brisbane’s QPAC theatre. Tickets from www.qpac.com.au

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