Jekyll & Hyde
Greenwich Theatre then on UK tour
14 February 2015
In 1886, while living in Bournemouth, Robert Louis Stevenson wrote a novella, Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde. For whatever reason, Stevenson did not want “The” in the title and the theory goes that this may have been to accentuate the strangeness of the tale. The novella became a huge hit, then a world-wide sensation, and is one of the most famous literary works of all time. Scholars will tell you that the book provides an insight into the realities of Victorian England: everything pristine and tight-laced on the surface, but underneath boiling with lust, passion and wanton desires.
Jo Clifford, in her stage version of Stevenson’s tale, dispenses with everything in the title but two words: Jekyll & Hyde.
She also relocates the action away from Victorian England and into “an alternative London of the future”. Her Jekyll is a big deal in Cancer research, driven to find a cure for mankind’s most profligate killer and, perhaps, pave the way for immortality for the human race. Through his experimentation with various drugs, Jekyll either unleashes a personality that has laid dormant within him or alters his personality, it is never really clear which, thereby producing the capricious, murderous and uncontrollable Hyde.
Jekyll’s solicitor (and, as is eventually disclosed, occasional lover), Utterson, tries to work out what is going on with his friend and client. Together with Doctor Lanyon, a forthright woman, he seeks to piece together the truth, aware of the presence of the unsavoury Hyde, but unsure what to do about him, if anything. It all ends badly, with blood, brains and tears splashed across the stage,
This is Sell A Door Theatre’s touring production, which has just finished its premiere week at the Greenwich Theatre, and which is touring the UK for the next month or so. Directed by David Hutchinson, Jekyll & Hyde is a wordy piece of theatre that jars and disturbs and does not have any of the resonances that Stevenson’s original had. Rather, Clifford creates her own resonances – not always successfully.
One of the great discussion points about Stevenson’s work turns upon what it was that Hyde got up to which was so morally repugnant to Jekyll. Many people have or had theories about that but Stevenson was always firm: the uncertainty on this issue, the ambiguity, was the point.
In Clifford’s version, while there is still plenty of ambiguity, there is also a plot point which is clear: Jekyll and Utterson have sex. But Utterson is also clear that Jekyll was part of the movement which, in this backward-looking but alternative future London, ensured that Homosexuality was re-criminalised.
So – Jekyll has homosexual urges, upon which he acts, but maintains a superficial conservatism and participates in the passing of laws which condemn him for his own actions. He unleashes his inner Hyde, either by altering his true self or revealing his true self, and that Hyde is both murderer and a user and abuser of women.
Which is the more evil? The thinking man who condemns himself and others with him? Or the unthinking, instinctive man who takes his pleasure where he chooses and acts as he pleases? Is this the point Clifford agitates?
If Jekyll is duplicitous in his treatment of and intimacy with Utterson, why should he have the audience’s sympathy? Would it not have made more sense, if the gay card was to be played in this context, to have Jekyll struggling with his sexuality? But if he and Utterson are lovers why would Jekyll seek to change the law to criminalise their love? Why would Utterson? And wouldn’t his experiments, then, be more about suppressing his true nature, rather than altering or revealing it?
But then again, why play the gay card at all? Why even contemplate a future society where homosexuality was again a crime? Is it to suggest that as time marches on society walks backward?
These questions, although posed, are not answered. This jars somewhat.
Clifford’s use of language is as surprising as some of the plot choices she makes. It’s modern language, not poetic or lyrical, but amongst which are lines or parts of lines Stevenson actually wrote. More jarring. There are also a myriad of sub-plots or political asides, none of which necessarily contribute to the telling of the tale, but all of which add up to discomfort.
And, perhaps, that is Clifford’s point: to take something familiar and make it wrong, uncomfortable, unpredictable. If it is, she succeeds magnificently.
On any view, though, Jekyll & Hyde is about 20 minutes too long. Sections of the first Act seem interminable and a little pointless. But, nonetheless, it is confronting in many ways and squarely raises the question of where the line is drawn between unpleasant, complicit voyeurism and involving theatre. Even if you don’t care for Clifford’s version of the tale, something about it will haunt you afterwards.
Nathan Ives-Moiba has the unenviable task of playing both Jekyll and Hyde here. Much is asked of him and he delivers in most respects. Certainly, it is a phenomenally physical performance which sees him use every inch of his lithe, muscular frame; the transformations from one character to another are cleverly done, purely by reliance upon acting skills. He is next to naked for a deal of the production and fearless and brave about exposing himself to scrutiny.
His voice is rich and colourful and he knows how to use it to good effect. In the later scenes of the play, when the transitions between Jekyll and Hyde become more frequent and uncontrollable, it is difficult for the performance not to slip almost into self-parody, what with the endless convulsions and accent changes, sometimes mid-phrase.
Ives-Moiba completely subsumed himself in the performance; his presence makes the extremities of the writing seem feasible and the line between pain and pleasure, right and wrong is feverishly explored by Ives-Moiba’s physicality, his sense of carnality and sensuality. The animalistic ease he brings to the performance is quite startling – particularly in one key section, the point of which must surely be to challenge the audience about why they are watching and not flinching. If they are.
Lyle Barke, as Utterson, in some ways had the hardest acting task here – the role of Utterson is but vaguely delineated in the writing. It is never certain just what Utterson’s purpose or function is in Clifford’s adaptation. Barke has an easy stage presence, a good voice and showed gentleness and insight in a sea of confusion. His final speech was particularly well judged.
Rowena Lennon played a range of roles, with varying degrees of success. Jekyll’s servant was her most successful turn, a splendid and candid portrait of uncertainty and fear. Her characters are troubled most with political messages, mostly about the appalling way the modern patriarchal society treats women. For example, her final character is an immigrant professional who is unable to work in her profession (Hydrologist) in England and so is reduced to cleaning up murder sites. Her plight is shocking, but, like discarded chewing gum, adheres to the plot in an unwelcome and unnecessary way.
Richard Evans provides an interesting set, a two-level affair involving a manual revolve. Two characters push the set around and around; occasionally, this permits for sleight of hand as the characters change position, unseen by the audience. The revolve effect is interesting, although it becomes tiresome by the end of the play. The atmosphere is suitably dark and ill-defined, Charlie Morgan Jones’ excellent lighting design feeding into and exponentially increasing that effect. Often the non-Jekyll characters are sat at the side of the stage, watching; at first this seemed curious, but, on reflection, it appears to be yet another way of raising the voyeur question.
This is an uncomfortable production of a version of Stevenson’s tale which is profoundly odd; darker, but less ambiguous than the original. The enthusiastic reception at Greenwich suggested that the audience found much to admire. To my mind, the text and this production raises many questions and leaves one to ponder them. Not a bad thing by any means.
Disturbing and confrontational, but also thought-provoking.