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Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

by on 16 February 2018


Out of Melodrama Springs Psychological Insight

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

by Robert Louis Stevenson, adapted by David Edgar

RTK and Touring Consortium Theatre Company at The Rose Theatre, Kingston until 17th February, then touring until 19th May

Review by Mark Aspen

There is a buzzing in the darkness.

Is there hidden is all of us a dark side? Is there a hidden demon awaiting the chance to spring forth? Is there hidden a basic animal behind our noble humanity? This question of the inner battle between good and evil, and of the duality within the human spirit, has been examined in many ways, theologically as God versus the Devil, and psychologically as the superego versus the id (a battle that Freud had fighting with the ego as mediator). The question was picked up in allegory by Robert Louis Stevenson in his The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, a simple tale to illustrate a complexities of the mind, but with all the atmospheric trappings of the Victorian Gothic horror story.

The Gothic atmosphere certainly permeated the Rose Theatre on press night as the expectant audience at the opening of this spring’s tour of David Edgar’s adaptation as Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde waited in the Gothic gloom for the start of the play. There was an excited buzz, accentuated by an edgy rumble, a taster of sound designer and composer, Richard Hammarton’s tautly haunting soundscape, which is accentuated by the equally haunting and ethereal singing of Rosie Abraham.

The Gothic atmosphere continues with Simon Higlett’s set and costumes and Mark Jonathan’s lighting. The multi-level set transforms effortlessly between dank 1880’s London, to a house in the country, to Jekyll’s drawing room, to his laboratory. For the last, the monochrome gains an eerie blue and light passes through the doctor’s colourful chemi’-set. The lab door is painted a foreboding blood red. Amongst the swirling smoke, you can almost feel the peasouper London smog.

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde at the Rose Theatre. Photo by Mark Douet _50A2600
The Gothic atmosphere of Stevenson’s succinct novella, a century on in Edgar’s adaption, presented a much-thinned peasouper, however, a gruel of a maudlin melodrama. Edgar adds in a number of extra characters, some of whom are superfluous to the development of the plot and somewhat emaciate it. Nevertheless, towards the second half, out of the melodrama springs the nasty twists, albeit aching with psychological insight.
Director Kate Saxon has injected some deliciously scary moments and some sickeningly scary ones into what is otherwise a slow-burner of an adaptation, although there is the feeling that she could have made much more from a version closer to Stevenson’s original.
The extra characters are largely all female, brought in to Stevenson’s almost all male line-up. The intention seems to be to include sexual predation in Hyde’s list of crimes. To some extent this works, but seems to be there merely to follow the current Zeitgeist.

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde at the Rose Theatre. Photo by Mark Douet _50A3287
There is much scene setting. Firstly we find Jekyll and his three friends philosophising, including about the duality of human personality and how it may lead to “a fiend in human form” emerging, but when push comes to the shove they are unaccepting that this phenomenon could manifest itself in Jekyll. Dr Hastie Lanyon (Ben Jones), a fellow student from their medical school days, describes Jekyll’s theories as “balderdash”. Richard Enfield (Matthew Romain) is sceptical, but he is the man about town enjoying himself. The older and, he thinks, wiser of the three, Gabriel Utterson, a staunchly upright rational lawyer (in a robust portrayal by Robin Kingsland) cannot believe anything wrong of Jekyll even when the facts point otherwise.
The setting of the family background comes via a widowed sister Katherine, admirably played by Polly Frame, from whom we discover that the source of Jekyll’s dark knowledge is their father’s alchemic experimentations. Towards the end of the play, we also discover that the eye-patch she wears results from an eye injury in her childhood, caused when her head was smashed against a newel post, such that her brother could, in his own words, “hear the occipital bone crack”. Equally Katherine’s daughter Lucy (played by the versatile Rosie Abraham) is a victim of Hyde’s beastliness, but not violence, when his alter ego begins to emerge unbidden from Jekyll.

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde at the Rose Theatre. Photo by Mark Douet _80A7209
We eventually explicitly see the full extent of Hyde’s violence in the brutal murder of the elderly MP, Sir Danvers Carew (Ben Jones cleverly aged-up). Fight director, Kev McCurdy has recreated the full gut-wrenching viciousness of the attack: more bone cracking!
Edgar has borrowed quite heavily on other sources to expand the Stevenson original. The biblical “sins of the father” are evident in the adaption. The transformative potion is a formula of Jekyll Senior not one resulting from Jekyll’s own experimentation. The slashing of his father’s portrait is lifted from Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, as broadly is the idea of a mirror that Jekyll moves to his laboratory to observe his own disintegration, until the fearful time when “I look into the mirror and see nothing”. There is also a hint of a self-creating Frankenstein and his homunculus in this adaptation.
A heavy burden however is put on the actor playing the lead, for the role is doubly eponymous, he is called upon to play both Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Disappointingly, this also robs the audience of a bit of theatrical magic in the transformation, but how does Phil Daniels cope in this double role? It is a hard task without opportunity for make-up or costume changes, but results in Hyde being a grotesque created by caricature. Daniels effectively alters his entire deportment from the tall erect (literally upstanding) Jekyll to the hunched and twisted Hyde, the confident stride becoming a suspicious scurry. So far, so good, but … the voice. As a nod to Stevenson, who was born in Edinburgh, Jekyll is given a soft urbane Edinburgh accent, whereas as Hyde he effects an impenetrable Glaswegian accent, what the more provocative youth of Edinburgh might call “thick Weegie talk”. (Thankfully, although the tour is going to Aberdeen and Edinburgh, it is not visiting Glasgow!) The result is to move our Victorian melodrama to Victorian music hall. Nevertheless, Daniels accurately portrays the degeneration of the respectable and principled Jekyll to the dissolute and brutish Hyde.

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde at the Rose Theatre. Photo by Mark Douet _50A2893
The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde has been described as “one of the best guidebooks to the Victorian social structure” and in this adaptation it is the servants who become the lynchpins of the plot. Poole, the butler, becomes almost a Greek chorus, powerlessly commenting on the unfolding tragedy. Poole is intelligent and concerned about his master, but fiercely loyal to him. Sam Cox plays the part to a tee. Poole is starchy, conscientious and unyielding, but firmly wedded to the concept of Victorian social hierarchy, and Cox portrays him with dry humour and withering facial expressions that add a light touch to the heavy melodrama. Equally, the added character of Annie, the maid who progresses, if that is the word, from Katherine’s household to Jekyll’s, has an enquiring mind and more insight into the burgeoning catastrophes that any of the other characters. It is Annie who becomes another victim and suffers a savage rape by Hyde, its depiction a deeply disturbing stage moment. Grace Hogg-Robinson as Annie accurately shows the character’s charm, her resolution and her vulnerability.
It is perhaps through Annie that we see that psychological insight springing from the melodrama, the truth springing from the caricature.
Eventually when Jekyll looks “little chink of light surrounded by an infinity of darkness” all he can see is “the devil in the darkness”, in what Utterson calls the “rancid burrows” of the mind.

Mark Aspen
February 2018

Photography by Mark Douet






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