Immense creative opportunities arise from the adaptation of literary texts to stage productions, but too often they are merely slavish imitations and contribute only to heritage theatre. Fortunately, playwright Evan Placey has chosen to use R. L. Stevenson’s late nineteenth-century source text for inspiration in a way that connects with a range of highly contemporary issues. It’s a brilliantly thought-provoking production that contributes to current debates about science and gender, patriarchy and heteronormativity, women’s liberation, and social media as an outlet for misogyny and as an opportunity for emancipation. On an another level, it is a deeply emotional experience that is embodied in the actors’ ability to communicate issues with an emotional urgency.
The play exposes how performances and scripts create gender roles and suggests how they can be re-written. In particular, the second half of the play provides a stronger emphasis on (post)modern perspectives as we increasingly experience the liberating role of fan fiction in the transformation of classic texts. However, if it is starting to sound like a theatre of ideas and aesthetics, don’t be mistaken! It’s a highly physical performance and a call to action, with a reminder that actions speak louder than words, or perhaps that words should not be trusted (Nullius in verba is mentioned in the play — the motto of the Royal Society).
There is perhaps a grotesque element that looks back to the infamous SCUM group, which published a radical feminist manifesto by Valerie Solanas in 1967, asserting that men had ruined the world and only women could fix it. Clearly the struggle against the oppression of women is an ongoing battle. The play also explores sexuality, taking hints from the homosocial aspect of Jekyll’s circle of male friends in Stevenson’s novella. Indeed, Enfield is explicitly exposed as a user of rent boys, for instance, and as someone who uses his status to put himself above and beyond the harsh Victorian laws that punished gay men at that time. In satirical terms there was a recurrent theme of hypocritical men, caught in a double life. Historical oppression is revived, but there is also a sense that narratives can be recomposed with multiple voices, a phenomenon that is becoming popular as “fan fiction”.
In gothic horror terms, the awakening of Frankenstein’s monster and the transformation of Jekyll into Hyde have become iconic cinematic moments that exceed their origins in Shelley’s or Stevenson’s text. This metamorphosis potentially presents a problem in a large theatre space. However, with support from Sarah Worth (Movement Director) the transformation scenes have a remarkable impact, as the focus shifts to a collective sense of empowerment that vibrantly occupies the vast space of the theatre with a strong message about the need for liberation. The young actors embraced the challenge with a strong ensemble performance. Moreover, the physical strength and power associated with Hyde in Stevenson’s text finds a modern parallel in the street protests which are supplemented by increasing energy and violence of the women’s actions. The counter-patriarchal violence also reveals the enactment or revenge for the many women who are still victims because their abuse is overlooked by the establishment.
Stevenson’s source text had few roles for women. In the original there was a sentimental maid who recounted the violent killing of Sir Danvers Carew, before fainting; another was the ‘ivory-faced and silvery-haired old woman … an evil face, smoothed by hypocrisy’. In contrast, Evan Placey’s version provides considerable opportunities for women to play a major role, challenging the tired gender stereotypes of traditional Gothic fiction. Strong performances resonated with the audience, from the domestic fragility of Jekyll (Niamh Franklin), to the assertiveness of the pleasure driven and grotesquely violent Hyde (Sophie Mae Reynolds); powerful and memorable acting was also contributed by Elijah McDowell, Thomas Manion, Miles Dunkley, Peter Harrison and Daniel J. Kenton in multiple roles. The company also drew on the strength and contribution of Brandon Hinds, Leah Jones, Ella Kirk, Renee Kelly, Sophie Wellawize, Kate Holmes, Katie Huffer, Scarlett Taylor, Maly Hussain and Shawnalee Stewart.
A key element that helped to maintain the aesthetic coherence of the plot was the monumental musical score provided by Iain Armstrong. The range of music helped to create an atmosphere for key scenes and transformational moments; it also supported the general mood of mystery, intrigue and horror. More generally, the music also gave the story an epic sensationalism, almost Hollywood big screen, perhaps in the psychological tradition of Hitchcock or a Bernard Hermann thriller. But there were also many sound contrasts, from the liturgical worship to the urgent chanting of street protestors. In summary, the music bridged the inner crisis of the private psyche and the vibrant clashes in the public arena.
The set design (Cecilia Carey) and lighting (Simon Bond) worked exceptionally well on several levels. Overlapping spaces indicated the double standard of Victorian life: the privacy and respectability of the home as a domestic space of the family; the riotous world of transgressive pleasure offered by the bar / brothel. Also highly effective was the height and lighting given to the laboratory, and the increasing depth of the space as the audience is drawn deeper into the core of the mystery. At the end of the play a more modern minimalism suggests that perhaps finally, hopefully, the rotten core of patriarchal society has been stripped back to reveal some hidden truths about gender and violence. Altogether a stimulating play and a highly engaging performance by a talented ensemble of young actors directed by Tessa Walker. Overall, the Birmingham Rep has employed a creative team that has brought the best out of these young actors.
© Dr Ian McCormick.
[Theatre Review: Jekyll and Hyde, by Evan Placey, based on the novella by R.L Stevenson. Birmingham Repertory Theatre / The Young REP. Directed by Tesssa Walker. Première: 18 April 2019.]
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Harriet Jekyll's investigation into her husband's mysterious death has taken her into a dark and dangerous world. A gothic world of science, taverns and misogyny that no decent Victorian woman has dared to enter before.
It's a world that she's desperate to change but to do so, she must embrace the creature she's changing into. As she sets about her blood-thirsty mission, her actions start to bleed into the present day.
Award-winning writer Evan Placey (Girls Like That, Orange Polar Bear) combines contemporary chills and gothic horror in his re-imaging of Robert Louis Stevenson's classic story directed by Tessa Walker (The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe and The Hundred And One Dalmatians) and performed by The Young REP.
CreativesDirector Tessa Walker
Associate Director Philip Morris
Designer Cecilia Carey
Lighting Designer Simon Bond
Sound Designer/Composer Iain Armstrong
Movement Director Sarah Worth
Associate Movement Director Lucy Wild
Fight Director Alison de Burgh
Voice Coach Barbara Houseman