‘Jekyll and Hyde’ is such an archetypal folk myth by now that it’s hard to believe in an imaginative world without it, or that someone actually sat down and wrote it. Robert Louis Stephenson, the story goes, had a nightmare, woke up and wrote his novella in an hour, and was so horrified by what he had written that he burned it. Then he had second thoughts, took large quantities of drugs, and wrote it again in under a week. This is probably a myth, but it merely serves to fuel the larger myth. Certainly, it is something that seems to come directly from the Jungian unconscious, rich and redolent of multiple interpretations. Whichever way you cut it, at its core is the clash between intellect and passion, respectable Victorian society and its underbelly, repression and self-expression (it’s no coincidence that it was written in the year that homosexuality was criminalised), good and evil.
Jonathan Holloway wrings variation on the theme by turning Jekyll into a woman, highly educated and frustrated at the role women have in society. She turns into Hyde because men have a power and freedom women do not. So far, so good. Many Victorian women fantasised about being men. One consequent modification is that Utterson, the lawyer who in the original is the main investigator of the mystery of Hyde, becomes sexually enslaved to Jekyll, in a sadomasochistic relationship that Jekyll uses as a means of both controlling him and deflecting him from the truth.
However, the Holloway interpretation simplifies, intellectualises the original. There are many ambiguities that are lost. Stevenson located his story in an exclusively male world, a world of busy bachelors in a coterie of friendship. Whatever else it was about, it was about the male psyche. It was also about a fall from a great height. Jekyll’s Doctor was a benefactor of humanity, which made his fall from grace the more terrifying and heart-breaking. By turning ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ into an essay in proto-feminism, Holloway abandons the sense that this could be something that is in all of us, for a story illustrating something that confirms all its audience’s expectations and beliefs. It ceases to disturb, and merely reinforces.
There is no journey; or rather, such journey as there is takes place elsewhere, offstage. Jekyll is merely involved in unspecified ‘researches’. As a mittel-European interloper, she has no place in society. Jekyll is a sexually predatory femme fatale from the start, having seduced Utterson’s friend Enfield, and offers to give herself to Utterson himself with brutal bluntness. This forward hussy doesn’t need a separate Hyde; it is all blurred within Jekyll. Holloway might say that this is the whole point, but without a clear duality, there is no story, no tease, and no shock at what Jekyll becomes. The appearance of Hyde is delayed to very late in the play (no transformation scene), and has nothing like the impact it should have.
Despite the deficiencies of the concept, Flipping the Bird Theatre Company give it their very best shot. Whiteface makeup and grand guignol lighting, stark jolting changes of tone, imaginative use of lighting and effects make for an experience that is more unsettling than the script. The whole is framed by a device in which a dissolute rake tries to sell the manuscript to Worsefield, a publisher of the ‘dark press’ (pornography and sensation). As he draws the hooked Worsefield into the story, the two become musical commentators (cello and mandolin) on the action. The music is very inventive, heightens the gothic melodrama, and justifies a framework that could merely have slowed down the action.
There is however a weakness at the centre of the show in the performance of Cristina Catalina as Jekyll/Hyde. This is not helped by Holloway’s concept and writing, but there is little sense of initial rectitude in her performance, of her intellectual superiority, or of passionate frustration in her societal role. There is no graduated undoing, and it’s hard to see what Utterson falls for. Her Austrian (?) accent comes and goes, while when she finally appears as Hyde she reminds one of nothing more than the Artful Dodger in ‘Oliver.’ The men however all hold themselves well, Michael Edwards supplying with conviction the arc from rectitude to debauch which the central character lacks. Leo Wan’s man-about-town Enfield walks a tightrope between comedy and terror, an attractive Japanese actor of whom one hopes to see more in London.
Jessica Edwards's direction pulls out all the stops, and it would be interesting to see what she would do with a better script. As it is, she rescues this one to provide a vivid, if not challenging, theatrical experience.