5 Min Read

An Ever-Changing Hall of Mirrors: Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

We’re especially fortunate in Perth to be seeing Kip Williams’s dazzling adaptation and staging of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde framed by the Edwardian grandeur of His Majesty’s Theatre, with its sumptuous blood-red carpets, curtains, seats and walls, and its beautifully restored ambience haunted by theatre ghosts.

In fact the production could hardly be put on elsewhere in the city because of the vast space required in terms of the dimensions of the stage – initially almost bare apart from a diagonal line of streetlamps and a continuous drift of stage fog – as well as the capacious wings and especially the fly-tower.

Inside the frame of the proscenium arch, two actors – Ewen Leslie and Matthew Backer – play Hyde and Seek in an ever-changing hall of mirrors. Huge flats rapidly descend and reascend from the flies to serve as projection screens, displaying a seamless mix of live-feed and pre-edited video footage with which the two actors (almost equally seamlessly) interact; the flats also provide temporary screens for them to hide behind for the purpose of quick changes.

Meanwhile a crack team of technical and stage crew hurtle around the stage with Steadicams or wheeled-on pieces of scenery like building-facades, doors, rooms, inner walls and staircases, as well as props and costumes like tables, chairs, portraits, looking-glasses, glasses of wine, writing materials, laboratory equipment, walking sticks, hats, coats, wigs and facial hair.

Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Photography by Daniel Boud.

Backer plays Jekyll’s taciturn but tolerant lawyer-friend and confidante Utterson, who also becomes a prototypical detective in the ‘strange case’. Meanwhile Leslie plays Jekyll and Hyde as well as all the other characters in an astonishing tour-de-force of virtuosity and sustained intensity.

Their hand-in-glove double-act underlines the typically Victorian Gothic theme of the doppelganger. The effect is heightened by the fact that they physically resemble each other onstage, and is reinforced by the use of costume as a form of disguise – as well as the blocking, where they frequently mirror each other, and the screens, where they’re reduplicated by multiple versions of themselves (and in the case of Leslie sometimes play multiple characters simultaneously).

As far as I could tell, the text seemed remarkably faithful to the words of the original. The most significant departure from the novella – and the turning point of the show – occurs in the final section when Utterson reads Jekyll’s ‘full statement of the case’. At this point both actors repeatedly drink the transformative potion, while the soundtrack transitions from a Bernard Hermann-style classically themed score to pounding techno, and the entire production slides into a kind of drug-fuelled gay-nightclub rave/delirium. Meanwhile the images on the screens – which have hitherto been in black-and-white – explode into colour, invoking The Wizard of Oz (complete with Backer as Dorothy and Leslie as the Cowardly Lion), while the two actors join hands and run off into the maze of screens, finally reappearing at the front of the stage wearing dresses and dance the can-can. We’re not in Kansas anymore.

Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Photography by Daniel Boud.

For all the undeniable genius of Williams’s adaptation and direction, the heart and soul of the production lies with the actors. Backer’s Utterson conveys a touching vulnerability beneath his veneer of impassive stiffness and is wonderfully liberated when he finds his inner Dorothy in the final section. Leslie is one of the most charismatic actors currently working onstage and onscreen, and while there’s a certain brittle coldness to his Jekyll, this is counterbalanced by his demonic Hyde, whose scuttling, cowering figure – dressed in a too-large overcoat and long, unkempt wig, and addressing his interlocutors (and the camera) with glowering eyes, leering smile and rasping voice – manages to convey the uncanny yet indefinable malevolence and repulsiveness required by the story, while simultaneously embodying something abject and even pitiable, both monster and child.

All of this is captured and amplified by the astonishing video design and camerawork, especially by the team of Steadycam operators, who in one sequence chase the actors around the perimeter of the stage like paparazzi, while an expertly framed and presumably live tracking shot follows them on the screens.

At times however I found myself longing for some relief from the predominantly mediated nature of things, as my eyes were continually drawn to the screens and away from was happening on the stage (as is increasingly the case in real life).

Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Photography by Daniel Boud.

Clemence Williams’s thrilling but relentless score also emphasized the cinematic aspect of the show, imposing a hypnotic mood that risked becoming monotonous. The actors’ continuously rapid-fire delivery of non-stop text had a similarly relentless and hypnotic effect. This was exacerbated by their amplified voices being mixed into the soundtrack and dispersed around the auditorium with use of body-mics and surround-sound speakers, with the inevitable slight delay and echo that attends the use of live-feed audio and cinema-style sound equipment in a resonant theatre space.

In sum, I couldn’t help feeling that there was a Jekyll-and-Hyde-like quality to the form of cine-theatre itself, with the cinematic elements devouring the theatrical ones.

In fact the whole apparatus was like a kind of hermetically sealed lab, with the actors as experimental subjects, the adaptor-director and his fellow creatives as scientists, the crew as their assistants, and the audience as observers. Or perhaps it’s simply a demonstration of the fact that we’re all Jekyll-and-Hydes now, trapped in our compartmentalised and hermetically sealed performative identities and virtual worlds.

That said, it’s an amazing creation flawlessly executed, and the virtuoso performances by the actors and technical crew carry all before them.