Jonathan Holloway’s reincarnation of Stevenson’s Gothic classic Jekyll and Hyde claims to “appropriate and reinvigorate the story for contemporary audiences” and provoke debate and theatrical conversation. Unfortunately, it seems as though the production creates less of a web of intrigue, and more a tangle of confusion.
It’s all undeniably very atmospheric. Designer Neil Irish has done a wonderful job of transforming the cavernous venue and on entering the auditorium there’s a definite thrill in the air. There is an abundance of dry ice, dramatic lighting and skilfully-used trapdoors, while the set combines luxurious red silk lanterns above, and bricks and rubble downstage − a symbol of crumbling façades and walls of propriety and expectation that come crashing down? The costume design employs equally high drama with its Victorian inspirations; from huge billowing crinolines to Jekyll’s steampunk-inspired ensemble, they help to pitch the mood effectively.
However, this atmosphere is punctured by a plot that not only takes liberties with the original – which could lead to exciting new theatre − but somehow extracts the quality of intrigue that keeps us turning the pages of the novella, even in 2015 when the basics of the story are so familiar. Holloway’s Jekyll is a female doctor (played by Olivia Winteringham), with Hyde her male, testosterone-fuelled and violent alter-ego. So far, so fine, but we struggle to engage with a character who seems so unappealing from the start. There is little to suggest she is wrestling with inner demons – more that she is happy to play with them out in the open, which rather muddles the ‘double personality’ aspect of the tale.
Nor does her characterisation lend her such allure that it is believable that Utterson (Michael Edwards) would fall into the doomed relationship quite so rapidly. While the programme notes tell us that this representation of Jekyll has received unspeakable abuse in war-torn Eastern Europe and has sought sanctuary in London, the relevance of these events to the action we see barely shines through and the biographical references seem rather shoe-horned in. The Chinese references have a similarly jarred note: while it’s understandable given the theatre company is a joint British and Hong Kong organisation, the few cultural nods appear rather forced.
The performances are solid across the board, although the leads pepper theirs with moments of both melodrama and brusque nonchalance that make the tone swing oddly from one pitch to another. They are not assisted by the script, as at times Holloway appears to run out of inspiration, cutting off the flow of dialogue awkwardly and preventing the smooth progression of conversation. As it progresses, the whole production loses the strong sense identity that the production values initially gave it, and the 90 minutes begin to drag as the plot fizzles and the framing narrative becomes more illogical and less effective.
There is so much style in this piece, but the substance simply doesn’t live up to the initial visual promise. As the show meanders along, the power of the Gothic feels diluted and the lack of tragic impact reduces the ability of the production to live long in the memory.