(By Robert Louis Stevenson; Sydney Theatre Company adaption and direction by Kip Williams: Her Majesty’s Theatre, Adelaide, 5 March 2023)
Stevenson‘s 1885 fable of the dangers of suppressing the id “is for ever being recalled, throughout the English-speaking world, to signify man’s divided nature.”* Filmed, staged and broadcast hundreds of times, the story is superior to the telling, and in this adaptation (by the team that presented The Picture of Dorian Gray) we are treated to a Gothic glory, vivified for the stage by dark demonic videographers, swarming hornet-like about the players. So it is not quite a two-hander.
Stevenson’s key character of the lawyer, Utterson (Matthew Backer), is revived, and the ‘other guys’ are played by Ewen Leslie, in a virtuoso performance (or performances). Vast slabs of text are hurled at us in an impressive display of rote, but the effect comes-off as much too talky.
As in Dorian Gray, Williams employs imaginative stagecraft, melding on-stage actors, live video, and pre-recorded video (by moving flats and screens) to heighten the sense of nervous, blurry fragmentation. The set design, really more Edinburgh than London, is minimalist but apt, with its fog and lamps and autumn leaves, but is dominated by the video design. Yet the use, arguably, the overuse, of such techniques, tends to detract from the dramatic activity, particularly when the real characters are obscured by the set and we are reduced, as it were, to watch them on TV.
This production is clever, but (dare we use that critic’s weasel phrase) “too clever.” Styled as a thriller, the piece is so well known that the denouement lacks mystery. More profoundly, Hyde comes-off as a figure of pity, rather than horror. He is a murderer and villain, yes, but we do not get the sense of the evil that potentially enters (or “enters in”) the human heart. And when Utterson has a crack at Jekyll’s potion and gets a rush akin to an opium or acid trip, the switch is flicked to vaudeville. Some edits are due: this show would resonate more at 90 rather than 120 minutes.
It has been suggested that Hyde was inspired by a French villain, Eugene Chantrelle, who invited his victims in Edinburgh to supper parties with toasted cheese and opium. This production, sumptuous as it is, has a tad too much cheese.[* J. B. Priestley, Literature and Western Man (1960), p. 272.]