The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is an 1886 novella, allegedly written and rewritten in one evening whilst its author, famous Edinburgh son Robert Louis Stevenson, was high on drugs or fever or both. Essentially the study of the dual personality or schizophrenia, as it has come to be known, the story has been much depicted and adapted over the years in plays, musicals and films and has been undoubtedly influential in the growth of understanding of the subconscious mind.
Apparently if you think you know the story, though, think again. This is how this new and radical adaption by playwright Jonathan Holloway and collaborative theatre company, Flipping the Bird, appears to want to challenge its audience. Fresh from a successful run in Edinburgh, this hour-long piece finds the perfect new home in the Southwark Playhouse’s new ‘Little’ space where Joanna Scotcher’s scant yet eerily effective set brings dirty Victorian London vividly back to life.
As if Stevenson’s story is not outlandish and horrific enough, this production turns it on its head, whilst keeping the original themes at its core. The tale is restructured into the revelation of the contents of a memoir which is being sold on the black market. As the deal is discussed by dodgy characters St. John and Worsfield, the manuscript’s story is brought to life in front of them. White-faced and suitably dead behind the eyes, both Elliott Rennie and Joel Phillimore deliver performances which are superbly melodramatic and provide musical accompaniment on cello, accordion and ukulele. This narrative device is inspired and works brilliantly, but sadly is where the magic ends.
In Holloway’s adaption, Dr Jekyll (Cristina Catalina) becomes a ‘European’ woman and the investigative lawyer, Utterson (Michael Edwards), her unfortunate lover. A dazzlingly talented scientist, this Jekyll feels trapped by Victorian conventions, constraints and attitudes towards women. Frustratingly ahead of her time, she reacts by using her brilliant brain to turn herself into something brutally rebellious and grotesque, committing heinous crimes against society and humiliating and abusing her man with tactics designed to shock.
The idea is brave and interesting, especially considering the production was originally staged on Stevenson’s home turf, but the violent feminist overtones, in a modern society where women are achieving more than ever, feel hackneyed and outdated. The members of the five-strong cast work well together and there are some outstanding performances, but one hour is simply not long enough for them to create any real depth or for the audience to make any kind of emotional connection with their characters. In addition, the piece relies far too much on a detailed knowledge of the original in that even someone very familiar with Stevenson’s work would struggle at times to grasp what is going on.
Where Holloway’s Jekyll is essentially too big for the era she inhabits, she ironically mirrors the overall effect of this piece which, whilst clearly setting out to achieve something original and awe-inspiring, shoots itself in the foot and ultimately fails by trying to cram too much experimental weirdness and radical reshaping into too short a space of time.