Jekyll and Hyde

Evan Placey, after the novella by Robert Louis Stevenson
National Theatre
The Lowry, Salford

Jekyll and Hyde Credit: Feruza Afewerki
Jekyll and Hyde Credit: Feruza Afewerki
Jekyll and Hyde Credit: Feruza Afewerki
Jekyll and Hyde Credit: Feruza Afewerki
Jekyll and Hyde Credit: Feruza Afewerki
Jekyll and Hyde Credit: Feruza Afewerki

Maybe the exiling of the English National Opera from London has prompted the National Theatre to remember the ‘national’ part of their name. In any case, the company has commenced a nine-week tour of 60 state secondary schools commencing in Greater Manchester which will bring Evan Placey’s radical interpretation of the Jekyll and Hyde story to over 10,000 pupils. The play is designed to be staged in schools but is making a two-day appearance at The Lowry in Salford, open to all theatregoers.

There is, however, no indication of the script talking down to the young audience; rather the complex plot demands they sit up and pay attention. The first hint of the extent of author Evan Placey’s ambition is the absence of the word ‘Doctor’ from the title—this a sequel to, not an adaptation of, Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella. The storytelling is equally daring and imaginative. The plot not only jumps different timelines but the boundary between fact and fiction. While Stevenson’s original story explored the duality of human nature, Placey is more concerned with the hypocrisy of those in power.

In the 19th century, Harriet Jekyll (Angela Jones) finds maintaining the requirement to mourn her late husband, Henry, increasingly intolerable. She longs to be someone else and live another life and begins frequenting bawdy theatre shows and supporting political movements to safeguard female sex workers rather than male brothel owners / customers. When Harriet proposes to the medical authorities she should continue the experiments of her late husband, the suggestion is met with scorn, leading Harriet to experiment upon herself and transform into the forthright and abrasive Lady Flossie Hyde.

Lady Hyde takes to visiting sordid establishments and witnesses the hypocrisy of the establishment figures who took a ‘holier-than-thou’ attitude towards Harriet but who indulge in squalid sexual affairs. But things are not as they seem—speeches are interrupted by verbal glitches where punctuation is spoken aloud, or anachronistic phrases are used. This is because the 19th century scenes are a dramatisation of fan fiction written about Lady Hyde in the present day.

In a contemporary police station, Florence (Lucy Thorburn), the author of the online fan fiction about Lady Hyde, is arrested as her writings are being used by an extremist political group to justify acts of violence. The police believe life is imitating art and want Florence to use her writings to help the authorities trace the terrorists. However, Florence defiantly refuses to oblige, resenting that the police showed scant interest when she was subject to frightening online abuse; thereby setting the scene for confrontation in both reality and fiction.

The small ‘p’ pollical points in the script—how little societal attitudes towards women have changed over the years—are well-made. There is, however, little hope of redemption in the play; the violence could be an act of revenge as much as a means of promoting social justice. The storyline is very complex; author Evan Placey avoids a possibly ironic ending, where Lady Hyde might dodge the consequences of her actions as the authorities cannot believe a woman capable of violence. Instead, there is a nihilistic wish fulfilment conclusion, in the style of Fight Club, which requires an awful lot of spoken exposition to clarify the situation.

The transformation from Harriet Jekyll into Lady Hyde is handled with simplicity. Angela Jones does not play Harriet as a wallflower, so the physical changes are subtle—adopting a more masculine stride and stance for Hyde. Hyde’s dandy clothing is concealed under Harriet’s dowdy widow’s weeds.

Director Kirsty Housley is determined to grab and hold the attention of the young audience. As the audience enters, disco music blasts through the theatre and the cast enter performing warm-ups and chatting with patrons. Housley draws out surprising humour in such a dark tale—a sermon is distorted by so many glitches and interruptions, it concludes with the stunned priest gasping "Jesus Christ!" and gulping down the alter wine.

Housley moves towards gothic cyberpunk to set the mood for the play. Amanda Stoodley’s set—highly polished floors and mirrored walls—could be a disco, but her costume designs, basques and stockings with the occasional whip push the setting towards a sex club. The set is highly flexible, the mirrored walls claustrophobically encircle the characters as if to force them to confront their guilt. Stevenson’s interest in duality is reflected in an animalistic theme—Harriet has an enthusiasm for tigers and the sex club patrons regularly don animal masks.

An excellent cast work together to make Jekyll and Hyde a success. Apart from Angela Jones and Lucy Thorburn, the cast take on multiple roles and also serve as mimes, silently shadowing and underlining the actions of Harriet Jekyll. It is a fine way of introducing a young audience to theatrical storytelling techniques with which they may be unfamiliar.

Although designed for a schools tour, the high quality of Jekyll and Hyde ensures the play is of interest to a wider audience.

Reviewer: David Cunningham

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