Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – Reviewed by Lee Farley
ROBERT Louis Stevenson’s Victorian novella has been adapted many times for stage and screen.
Its themes of human duality and moral ambiguity, and its scenes of brutal melodrama can still be potent in any modern viewing. Unfortunately, a blend of David Edgar’s stilted adaptation, some unimaginative production choices, and an unconvincing lead performance turn this version into a humdrum evening at the theatre.
Simon Higlett‘s set design creates an effective Victorian London. Dark interiors, shadowy corners, an upper level to watch and report from, plenty of doors and secrets. The design team have created an impressive storytelling platform from a practical and aesthetic perspective, which is complemented by atmospheric lighting by Mark Jonathan. Director Kate Saxon chooses to include a singer to cover the scene changes and bring a poignant note to the increasingly dark narrative. David Edgar’s adaptation brings in two significant female characters (Stevenson’s novella has an all-male cast) to, presumably, show a different, softer side to Jeckyll / Hyde’s relationships. This creates confusion where there should be clarity. The original tale is clear, sharp, and well crafted. Edgar’s adaptation adds a sister with a tragic backstory and a maid who (unoriginally, and somewhat depressingly) appears in the story predominantly in order to be physically abused. There are just too many sub-plots. Yet another Edgar-added tragic backstory arrives in the shape of Dr Lanyon, who has committed social faux pas in the past and suffers as a consequence. This is all hard to follow, and unnecessary.
Much of the action in this 1991 adaptation happens offstage. These added backstories are reported to us via large chunks of exposition dialogue. The first half, in particular, consists mainly of men in suits discussing lectures and political events. This adaptation tells, rather than shows, which makes for a surprisingly uneventful experience, particularly as the characters are so underdeveloped. It is unclear what this new version is interested in exploring – the themes of duality and social responsibility are forgotten as the new, invented characters have their stories and past sorrows revealed.
The cast provide some mature and skillful performances, despite the limitations of the text. Polly Frame as Katherine, Jeckyll’s sister, is persuasive and sensitive in an underwritten role, and Robin Kingsland has dignity and precision as Utterson, despite mostly having to rely on exposition dialogue for interest. Sam Cox and Grace Hogg-Robinson are good too, as servants with wit and humanity. Phil Daniels is tasked with bringing both Jeckyll and Hyde to life, but falls short of the charisma and complexity required. Jeckyll is stilted and one-dimensional, Hyde is grotesque, vaudevillian, laughably unrealistic. Daniels, noticeably and frustratingly, rarely makes eye contact with his fellow actors. He looks uncomfortable.
An impressive design, and some excellent supporting performances can’t save this production. Stevenson’s dark Gothic tale is rendered confusing and unconvincing by a mix of stodgy adaptation and a disappointing leading performance.