Two faces of the same man; two ends of the human spectrum. Good and evil. Jekyll and Hyde. Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a story that has grounded itself in popular culture as one of the great gothic tales. Like The Picture of Dorian Gray, the premise is simple and chilling, focussing on the duality and corruptibility of mankind. It is an endlessly adapted tale and, this month, West Yorkshire has played host to two different takes on the same story. Four incarnations of the same man: two Jekylls and two Hydes.
Theatre companies Theatre Mill and Sell A Door have produced strikingly different adaptations, stylistic polar opposites. Theatre Mill’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is the more traditional of the two, classily produced and dripping with Victorian chills, while Sell A Door’s Jekyll & Hyde is punchier and edgier, set in a dystopian near-future. Perhaps the two productions reflect the cities in which they are played. Theatre Mill’s production, like its host city York, is sumptuous and historic, while Sell A Door’s production is like its more grungy and modern neighbour, Leeds.
Sell A Door’s Jekyll & Hyde, which played at the Carriageworks Theatre, was possibly the weaker production, though it was still a gripping and intense re-imagining. In this version, Dr. Henry Jekyll is a television doctor, using his celebrity status to raise money for cancer research. Playwright Jo Clifford takes an interesting approach, painting the good doctor Jekyll as a heartless capitalist, which makes his slide into Mr. Hyde all the more plausible.
The problem with Clifford’s script is that its depiction of a dystopian future isn’t fully-realised enough to feel confident. It seems like the play is making a point, but isn’t entirely sure what it is. Paired with some jarringly old-fashioned monologues, the effect is a bit muddled. It’s a shame, because there are moments of brilliance. The first act ends with a torture scene that is uncomfortably believable and expertly paced. The slow build from nervousness to caution to absolute terror is heart-stopping. Gag in mouth, power-drill whirring, it’s one of the most intense theatrical moments of recent years.
[Image courtesy of South Hill Park Arts Centre]
This punk-y, grimy Jekyll & Hyde is lifted by strong performances from its three cast members. Lyle Barke’s Utterson is skilfully underplayed (this version paints an interesting homosexual relationship between the lawyer and Dr. Jekyll), but it’s Rowena Lennon who is the standout here. It’s a rare production where the ‘ensemble’ is the most memorable performance, but Lennon breathes humour, horror and emotion into every role, moulding herself so each minor character is unrecognisable from the last. From the sidelines, she proves to be the best thing about this production.
Though Sell A Door’s Jekyll & Hyde may be the more violent and disturbing, it is Theatre Mill’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde that delivers the most chills. Theatre Mill is an interesting little theatre company that performs in non-traditional performance spaces, attempting to evoke the atmosphere of each play’s setting. They aim for a fully-immersive theatrical experience and, with The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, they have certainly captured that. The Merchant Adventurers’ Hall’s wonderfully creepy undercroft plays host to this production and you feel the weight of history above your head. As the light pools in the shadows of the cellar arches, you really feel that you’re in a Victorian horror story.
[Image courtesy of www.theatre-mill.co.uk]
Interestingly, it’s this more old-fashioned production that has the better effects. Sell A Door’s Jekyll & Hyde has a more elaborate set-up, involving a rotating centrepiece, but it is overused, clunky and distracting. Theatre Mill’s production doesn’t rely on technically complicated staging, instead focussing on the simple but powerful effects of lighting and sound. Why manoeuvre a heavy piece of machinery when buzzing lights and spine-tingling sound design will do the same job? Theatre Mill has got it right with this production, using old-fashioned effects to create old-fashioned chills. The escalating sense of dread culminates in a “watch out!” final moment, a perfect demonstration of clever timing and inventive lighting.
Of course, it’s impossible to compare two versions of Jekyll and Hyde without comparing the two Jekylls and Hydes. The fine acting makes it hard to pick a winner here. Jekyll & Hyde’s Nathan Ives-Moiba delivers the more memorable performance, a frenetic, muscled, throbbing nerve of angst and energy, but his Jekyll is too similar to his Hyde – both men are arrogant chauvinists, so the impact of transformation is lost. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’s James Weaver finds an old-fashioned way to differentiate his Hyde: a cunning leer. His performance as Hyde is slightly hammier, but nonetheless effective, and better balanced by his good-hearted Jekyll. However, as with Sell A Door’s production, James Weaver’s central turn is usurped by his female co-star. As new character Eleanor, Viktoria Kay delivers a gusty, layered performance that adds warmth and depth to the story. With such fine female actors being relegated to supporting roles, perhaps it’s time for a female-led Jekyll and Hyde.
[Images courtesy of South Hill Park Arts Centre and www.theatre-mill.co.uk]
Both performances are of high quality, but it would have been interesting for one of the actors to really take Hyde to the extreme. Like how Heath Ledger turned The Dark Knight’s Joker into a fully-realised monster, it would have been exciting to see an entirely new take on Jekyll and Hyde – the modern psychopath. Theatre Mill’s more traditional production would have been the wrong place to do this, so perhaps Sell A Door missed a trick here. Jekyll and Hyde is a story for the ages, but still has places to go. It would be fantastic to see a truly scary Jekyll and Hyde, a gothic tale for the 21st Century.