Writer: David Edgar
From the novel by: Robert Louis Stevenson
Director: Kate Saxon
Reviewer: Gareth Davies
There is much that sends shivers of terror down the spine from this touring production of David Edgar’s adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic novella. The original story almost single-handedly created the genre of psychological horror, but perhaps the scariest thing here is the amount of Arts Council England funding that has been squandered on such an all-round terrible presentation.
The programme note from Edgar makes reference to sharpening his script (first penned in the late 1980s) and underlining its relevance to contemporary news stories around abuses of power and “sexual misdemeanours”. That this text is considered ‘sharp’ and ‘relevant’ is truly bizarre, given the long scenes of verbose, rhythmless dialogue that feel as though they could have been ripped from the worst kind of Victorian melodrama.
There is no tonal consistency across this two hours of turgid text. When Jekyll, asked where he has been, replies that he’s “been hiding”, is the horror being played for laughs, or is the humour entirely accidental? And why would either of those options be worth the not-inconsiderable price of an admission ticket?
The only thing entirely absent throughout is any genuine sense of terror. More often the production feels like an extended Acorn Antiques-style riff on Gothic horror and theatrical cliches, with rickety sets, shadows obscuring faces, adults playing children, overlong scene changes, portentous choral phrases sung by a sinister soloist, a classic ‘sitting on the suitcases’ train scene, the sound of echoing footsteps – one has to assume the comedy accents in particular were introduced as a cruel joke, though whether on the cast or the audience remains unclear.
Thankfully we’re spared thunderclaps and flashes of lightning, even during the entirely underwhelming moments when Jekyll (Phil Daniels) becomes Hyde (Phil Daniels), and vice versa. That those two key figures are visually indistinguishable from each other in any way seems like the worst kind of missed opportunity – and that the evil Hyde has a more Glaswegian version of an otherwise unwarranted (and consistently fluid) Scottish accent is almost downright insulting.
Director Kate Saxon describes, in her programme note, the challenge of finding ways to seamlessly segue between locations and scenes in the story, without halting the “taut drama”. Forgetting about that latter objective seems her only solution, ridding the drama of both depth and interest. Never before has the banality of evil been just outright boring.
Simon Higlett’s set is a yawnsome collection of black features, contrasted with predominantly dark costumes, forcing the audience to squint in order to distinguish actors from scenery. That task is made more difficult by the cast struggling with Edgar’s chaotic script and Saxon’s clunky direction, rendering their performances both more wooden and more flimsy than the set which surrounds them. The unironic eyepatch worn by one character surely only exists to punish the performer wearing it for some unspecified crime against humanity in a previous life.
Mark Jonathan’s lighting design is more shadow than light, which would have been a clever thematic decision had it been the other way around, or implemented in a way that didn’t reek of stage school theatrics.
An attempt by Edgar to bring emotional backbone to the story, requiring outright exposition right up to the closing moments of the play, takes it too far from Stevenson’s original tale. And what has been lost – or forgotten – is the true horror that Jekyll/Hyde is all of us; we are all just one gulp of a magic potion from unleashing our own inner demons.
After all, if Stevenson had sat down to write a story of a family man struggling with childhood trauma and the social pressures of maintaining a public image when his maid gets pregnant, it’s unlikely anyone would be wanting to adapt it for the stage nearly 150 years later.
Runs until 14 April 2018 | Image: Mark Douet