Writer: Gary McNair
Director: Michael Fentiman
We’re told to trust our gut – but that the voice in our head is usually the enemy. But what if they were neither friend nor for, yet at the same time, both?
Opening the Royal Lyceum Theatre’s 2024 season, a co-production with Reading Rep Theatre, this is a deeply unnervingJekyll & Hyde, not from the perspective of Victorian horror, seen through remarkably mortal eyes audiences may recognise themselves within, away from the snarling beast of fiction. In adapting Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella, playwright Gary McNair contorts and inverts the classic tale to plunge into the depths of one man’s psyche and the lengths we all go in hiding our deepest secrets. We all know what Jekyll’s is: maybe you’ll unravel yours along the way?
It’s a tricky task, one McNair channels with a stage flourish to adapt a well-beloved novella into something contemporary and insightful. Turning into different avenues than the recent National Theatre production and allowing Bard in the Botanics to retain its more period-accurate incarnation,Jekyll & Hydehas been written for the solo performance of Forbes Masson, unquestionably benefitting from his presence. Somehow delicate, though steely, it turns a heftier novella into realms of near-spoken word to offer a more distinct and stylish use of language while maintaining plenty of the original grit and grime.
Quite a stark change in expectation, Masson’s performance is less a multi-character exercise and retains an elegance in tone and voice as they recount the tale rather than embody it. They are not so much becoming each character but capturing their voice within the story – offering additional insight without departing the narrative space. Told through the lens of Utterson, Dr. Jekyll’s friend and lawyer, with the promise they are not ‘one of the good guys’there is an immediate authenticity to Masson’s engaging performance. The manifestations of Jekyll and Hyde are less frequent and even less brutish or bestial – they are almost spectres, convulsing and arching under Richard Howell’s excellently designed and precise lighting. Masson channels a more direct nature, one which sidesteps the fantastical and more into commonplace evils and cruelty of humanity – a being resulting from a broken man, unable to contain his secrets.
And while Howell’s lighting, pitched with an occasional stir of fear from Richard Hammarton’s remarkably understated score and sound design, offers some contemporary striking visuals and framing, it chiefly contributes a lacking ingredient: tension. It is present in Masson’s delivery and Michael Fentiman’s direction, but more often results in humour. The disturbing nature of the show is more subversive than shock or horror in channelling the audience into the psyche of a character, but much is left vacant in the surroundings, which begin to eat away at the overall enjoyment that, by the final revelation, may have worn a touch thinner than many would like.
What McNair’s script equips Masson with is the ability to communicate the draw of Hyde to Jekyll (us), to punctuate the beats of the original narrative with flickers of humour and insight into our experiences with curiosity and secrets. But as tension ebbs and rises, what manifests is aJekyll &Hydethat, while fascinatingly human, lacks the gruesome truth of our limits and aggressions – a fascinating production with superb leading performance, but one where what is left in shadow may have been the most exhilarating aspect.
Runs until 27 January 2024 and then touring | Image: Contributed