The problem about staging Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is that we all know the punchline. Robert Louis Stevenson’s original text was cleverly constructed as a mystery, the truth only hinted at, until the full horror becomes clear at the end of the tale. By contrast, our starting point as an audience is that we already know that Jekyll and Hyde are two psychological aspects – or as Stevenson phrases it, “denizens” – of the same man.
Blackeyed Theatre’s production is definitely an adaptation, rather than a realisation, of Stevenson’s work. Nick Lane, author and director, attributes his inspiration to his father’s bed-time storytelling in which “he’d always manage, quite seamlessly, to alter the endings...” As the Strange Case cannot be a mystery to us, Nick Lane instead reimagines the story by trying to explore Dr Jekyll’s motivations for experimenting on himself. He does this in part by including some historical context; for instance, we see Jekyll trying to experiment with rats, with reference to the then recent Cruelty to Animals Act, and comparing himself to the contemporaneous French neurologist Charcot.
The most significant departure from the original is the inclusion of a love-interest, with the amplification of a minor character, Dr Lanyon’s wife, into one of the two major roles. It was rather like expecting to watch Hamlet and instead seeing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead – as one of the ushers puzzled afterwards “I didn’t remember a woman in the story”. Personally, I found the concept of a respectable, traditionally conservative Victorian doctor like Lanyon allowing his wife to go gallivanting round the country with a man he didn’t like, recruiting inmates of mental asylums as experimental subjects just too far-fetched to be credible. The idea that she egged him on because she thought he was about to discover a universal panacea for mental illness was rather simplistic, far less interesting than the nature of his struggle with the “thorough and primitive duality of man”.
That aside, this was a powerful production. The technical team succeeded in creating a wonderful sinister, menacing, highly charged atmosphere throughout. The set was cleverly designed: a huge confusing assemblage of Victorian furniture and artefacts piled high higgledy-piggledy one on top of the other, chairs, candlesticks, test tube racks, street lamps, thus with all the scenery and props already to hand; and, of course, lots of doors in between. The lighting was also used cleverly, to denote change of scene, with the huge bare backdrop lit up green for the laboratory, blue for night, and occasionally used to reveal giant shadow figures (eg in the transformation scene). Music was also used effectively to build atmosphere, from the nail-biting tension of shrilling violins and the thumping heartbeat to the interwoven musical themes suggestively curling round each other like the mist and fog, with hints of evocative melodies like the theme from Jonathan Creek or Sherlock.
The acting was superb. Jack Bannell really brought the Jekyll/Hyde character to life in a most convincing manner: not as a simplistic split personality, one good, one bad, but with varying degrees of shade in both, as one man with both characters entangled within him, each struggling for the ascendance. Zach Lee was also rock solid as the austere, perplexed lawyer Utterson: I liked the way his reappearance on stage re-grounded us securely in the narrative, after some of the romantic flights of fancy involving Mrs Lanyon (Paige Round).
It was good to see the Cornerstone Arts Centre packed with young people – the average age of the audience was several decades younger than usual! This was a sell-out - an obvious choice for school parties as Jekyll and Hyde is a GCSE set text. They were very excited by the show and left the theatre with lots to talk about. The production threw up lots of questions. Is Jekyll a “man out of his time” or a “man out of his mind”? Jekyll/Hyde predicts that “I am the future” – that in a century’s time people will be like him, will “lie, cheat and steal”. Is he right? I can imagine that there will be lots of interesting debates in English classes around the county today – but I do hope they don’t cite Mrs Lanyon in their GCSE exams!