Is there anyone who hasn’t seen at least one version of this story, a version filled with gore, elaborate story lines and ostentatious special effects? This production of Jekyll and Hyde is different. Here we have a black box stage, a chair, a hat, and one actor.
Masson is almost hallucinogenically strong in the ‘group scenes’ where many characters are present
Gary McNair’s adaptation follows R. L Stevenson’s source novel unusually closely. There are no added incidents of horror or shock. This is daring, because the only recorded exploits of Hyde are rather tame by the standard of modern accounts of fictional, or real life, psychopaths. Hyde tramples on a young girl, breaking her bones, and he beats a man to death. Both were acts of unpremeditated rage.
In addition, there is only one character on stage – Utterson, Jekyll’s friend and lawyer, who is relating the story to the audience. Everything the audience learns is through his words. This mirrors the distancing effect of Stevenson’s text, where the story is told through letters, third party accounts, and the viewpoint of Utterson.
The strength of this approach is that the chills do not rely on gore and jumpscares. Like the source material, it presents Hyde in a metaphysical, almost supernatural, light. Hyde does not have to demonstrate he is evil from what he does. Anyone who sees Hyde knows he is evil from what he is. It is like seeing the Devil. Utterson describes Hyde, but we never actually see him. This leaves us to grapple with what it would be like to meet an entity that is pure, unknowable, infinite, evil.
For the majority of the play, Forbes Masson plays Utterson in the style of an urbane story teller, smoothly sliding between the characters in the manner of an after-dinner speaker. This gives a sense of Utterson as a real person rather than an actor playing several parts. There is the natural rhythm of telling a story. Only once this style is established, and at moments of crisis, does Masson slip away from Utterson’s character to voice Jekyll or Hyde more overtly.
Masson is almost hallucinogenically strong in the ‘group scenes’ where many characters are present. There is a dinner party scene from which I have a memory of a table, tablecloth, and multiple chairs on stage – none of which could have been there. And I know I could not have seen Jekyll talking to Utterson – but still…
Masson is aided in the story telling by the design (Max Howell) and lighting (Richard Howell), which with the sound (Richard Hammarton) all actively drive the story forward.
Thankfully, McNair’s adaptation of the novel adds plenty of jokes and humorous characterisation, all placed without disrupting the Gothic atmosphere and sense of inevitable revelation. And at the conclusion of Stevenson’s original narrative, McNair introduces an extra twist. I won’t give it away, except to say, "lawyers eh?"
It is refreshing to have an adaptation that not only stays true to the classic story, but uses the mystery and ambiguity of the original to bring chills to the audience.