Writer: Evan Placey, based on the novella by Robert Louis Stevenson
Director: Tessa Walker
Reviewer: Selwyn Knight
We all feel we already know the story of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde after countless adaptations of its central story – had the word been coined in 1886, one might even have described it as an early meme. But one feature of the original story screams out: there are (almost) no female characters in it. Were it a piece written now, one might criticise it for failing the Bechdel test by default. The Young REP has taken Stephenson’s story and turned it on its head in a brave adaptation from Evan Placey.
This production looks at Jekyll’s wife, Harriet after the death of her husband. She has spent a year in mourning but now feels restless. She travels abroad alone at night, visiting dens of ill repute, for example, the local theatre. An intelligent woman, she reads and understands her husband’s notes on his research into the nature of self: the concept that there are at least two warring factions in each and every one of us, with the darker side only needing a little push to exert itself. She seeks to join the council of learned men to get their permission to continue her husband’s work but is refused outright and so she works in secret. She builds on his instructions to produce a serum she injects to release Florrie, Lady Hyde, into the world. Hyde’s behaviour becomes more outrageous as she seeks out a thinly-disguised brothel used, it seems, by her late husband. She takes revenge on some of the men she sees as responsible for her situation as well as for women’s standing in society. Events can only go one way it seems.
Yet why do we have an almost Brechtian announcement of chapter headings punctuating the action? And why do characters occasionally and incongruously burst into more contemporary speech, punctuating their nineteenth-century speech patterns with spoken emoticons, for example? Who is really pulling their strings? And what strings to what purpose? The answers, in an unexpected twist, are given in the second half when the action and focus switch away from Stephenson’s world and the central theme around the treatment of women is examined from a rather different viewpoint.
This all makes for a complex piece of storytelling. Director Tessa Walker and Movement Director Sarah Worth have worked together to produce a stylish take on the story. The first transformation scene, as Harriet becomes Florrie, is a visual spectacular with the entire ensemble on stage making the whole greater in scale. Indeed, movement and choreography are central to the show and the young cast performs these sequences with commitment and skill. Scene transitions are undertaken in a stylised manner and add to the look and feel of the production.
Niamh Franklyn brings us Harriet. We see her increasing frustration as she is sidelined as a mere adjunct to her dead husband until her frenzied work in his lab allows her to unleash the more sinister and confident Florrie, Lady Hyde (Sophie Mae Reynolds). Reynolds stalks the stage almost cat-like in a self-assured manner, positively oozing menace as she goes. This is a superb piece of characterisation by Reynolds whose whole body speaks as loudly as any of her words do about Hyde’s intentions.
Possibly the most complex character is one not immediately associated with the book – Florence (Ella Kirk). Kirk gradually reveals the layers of Florence’s character as we begin to realise what it is that is really taking place on stage. These three strong female leads, each character with her own strengths and flaws, drive the narrative onwards through their credible performances to the ultimately inevitable conclusions. Not all in the ensemble are as successful in their characterisations, however, meaning that the power of some scenes can be diluted as some dialogue lacks assurance.
A brave adaptation indeed, with powerful central performances that show great promise and visual sequences stunning in their originality and impact. But it’s not quite there yet – some of the characterisations need more light and shade to bring all the performances to the towering level of the central three. Nevertheless, a thought-provoking piece that makes us look at the original again in a rather different light.
Runs Until 27 April 2019 | Image: Graeme Braidwood