After the opening to critical acclaim, the season of Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde has been extended until September 10. Get your tickets here (before they sell out again!).
Having already reinterpreted Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray for the modern stage, Sydney Theatre Company artistic director Kip Williams returns to the well of Gothic literature with this bold take on Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 novella, Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
Telling the story of a respectable London physician, Henry Jekyll –who concocts a potion to purge the evil part of his nature only to find himself increasingly under the control of his brutish alter ego, Edward Hyde – Stevenson’s tale has been much adapted, parodied, and lifted from over the years, but never in so bold a manner as this.
Whereas Williams’ Dorian Gray saw one performer take on a multitude of roles, here we have two: Ewen Leslie, who last collaborated with Williams on the STC’s Julius Caesar, and Matthew Backer, a veteran of Williams’ Cloud Nine and Chimerica. Each is credited as simply “performer” in the production materials.
But there’s nothing simple about Williams’ Jekyll and Hyde. This production takes the well-worn terror tale and drills deep into its themes of identity and duality. While the script itself is a relatively straightforward take on the source text – with the actors giving voice to reams of prose so frequently that at times it feels more like a recital than a dramatisation – in execution, it is audacious and thrilling.
Williams once again employs his “cine-theatre” technique, mixing live performance, live video, and pre-recorded video to offer the audience not only multiple perspectives but, in this case, multiple personae. Designer Marg Horwell’s sparse stage, wreathed in London fog, is dominated by a handful of moving flats and screens onto which video designer David Bergman’s work is projected. Images spill over multiple screens, fragmenting. Faces are split by the edge of frame, dissolve into each other, overlap and invert, blurring the boundaries between characters. On a purely formal level it’s provocative, daring stuff – a centerpiece sequence involving nothing more exotic than a staircase is simply stunning in its playfulness and brio.
But it would amount to much more than a technical showcase without the superb work from Leslie and Backer. Backer is largely confined to the role of Gabriel Utterson, Jekyll’s lawyer and friend who uncovers the good doctor’s dual nature, and from whose point of view we follow the action. It is, for the most part, an unshowy but vital part, with Backer tasked with grounding the proceedings in a believable emotional context.
Leslie, on the other hand, gets to dig deep into a big bag of tricks to portray most of the other characters, putting on a variety of wigs, costumes – and accents! – to play Jekyll, Hyde, and a raft of supporting characters. He is magnificent; by turns showy and secretive, melodramatic and tragic. It’s a bravura turn that challenges the actor as much as it rewards the audience. Yet it would not work in a vacuum, and Backer’s measured turn is a vital counterbalance.
The whole affair is drenched in Backlot Gothic atmosphere reminiscent of the classic Universal Classic Monsters movies of the ‘30s and ‘40s, all silver light and deep shadows, perfectly complemented by composer Clemence Williams’ gloomy, stentorian score.
For all the play’s heady themes, there’s a playfulness here, a slightly arch tone that doesn’t quite wink at the audience but certainly invites us to smile. It’s an impressive tonal balancing act, and one can easily imagine the show slipping either into self-serious solemnity or camp farce in less capable hands. Williams and his team thread the needle without touching the sides.
Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is a triumph; a literary classic made fresh by some of the most talented theatre makers in the county, working at the top of their game and in full command of their talents. For this production, five stars is not a generous score – it’s the least it deserves.
Seeing double? You can also see the Hayes Theatre’s inventive take on Jekyll and Hyde the Musical in Sydney this month. Read our four-star review.