Review: Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, directed by Kip Williams for Sydney Theater Company
With their new production, Kip Williams and the Sydney Theater Company have revisited the artistic and box office success of 2020’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. As with that show, Jekyll and Hyde’s narrative is powered by a dazzling mix of performances live, filmed action and recorded video. The intensity this combination brings to the storytelling is, where appropriate, composed in the new production, which rushes to its climactic moments with compelling force.
However, where Dorian was bathed in the beautifully exotic colors of Wilde’s novel, the new production’s aesthetic is stark black and white, with flashes of color only popping at crucial moments of reveal. Otherwise, the look is noir, borrowing a visual language for Victorian London from films such as Basil Rathbone’s 1940s Holmes films.
Gaslight, fog and mysterious doors invite us both into the story and into the exploded psyche of its protagonists.
A bold choice for this production is to use almost all of Robert Louis Stevenson’s short story as the basis for the dialogue. The two performers recount their action while interpreting the dialogue. They primarily address us through the camera, constructing an intimate image of disintegrating personalities.
Body and voice changes
Ewen Leslie, as Jekyll and Hyde (along with most of the other characters), gives us the virtuoso performance we’ve come to expect from him. Leslie’s ability to seemingly transform her body and voice in the blink of an eye lends the story brilliantly.
The revelation for me, however, was Matthew Backer. Unlike Leslie, Backer takes only one character: Mr Utterson, the lawyer. In Stevenson’s words, this “rough-faced”, austere, “never-enlightened-with-a-smile” man is the person through whom we initially experience the events of the story.
Backer captures Utterson’s anxiety over what he witnesses. He appears, at first glance, to be a censored observer, all Victorian repression and harsh commentary. However, the production’s shrewd use of Stevenson’s words and Backer’s own subtle performance ensure that Utterson’s own involvement in London’s twilight world of fun and violence is front and center.
It is telling that Dorian Gray and Jekyll and Hyde were written and published within a few years of each other. Stevenson’s brilliantly written short story came out in 1886, followed by Wilde’s novel in 1890. Darwin’s theories of evolution had already been in circulation for some decades, and Sigmund Freud’s first book appeared in 1891. Both novels make their own literary contribution to this story. exploration at the end of the 19th century of human limits.
However, these two stories of men leading double lives might have had something more pressing in mind. Utterson’s initial suspicion, when confronted with his friend Dr. Jekyll’s odd behavior and Jekyll’s apparent tolerance of the vicious Mr. Hyde, is that he is being blackmailed.
In 1885, the year before Jekyll and Hyde first appeared in print, a law was passed that specifically criminalized all homosexual activity between men. Known as the Labouchère amendment, it is also known as the “blackmailer’s charter”. It was a license to threaten men with exposure, and it was the law under which Wilde was ultimately prosecuted and convicted a few years later.
Read more: The Picture of Dorian Gray review: Eryn Jean Norvill stuns in all 26 roles
Set in the all-male world of middle-class and professional London, Stevenson’s short story skirts the possible implications of male friendship, especially when combined with the urban pleasures or potential dangers of further exploration. scientific. What stands out – and what stands out brightly and subtly in this production – isn’t so much the traditional horror story of good versus evil.
Rather, it is a more complex depiction of the moral compass of a society painfully realigned in a new world of discovery. Utterson is both fascinated and repelled by his glimpses of a world from which he only imagines himself to be separate.
In this context, Williams’ bravura use of video technology combined with live action (just wait for the thrilling ‘staircase’ scene!) is a particularly appropriate vehicle for investigating these complex influences on both the human psyche and on the human body.
It’s great that the STC has been able to bring together this group of artists again. From Nick Schlieper’s lighting to Clemence Williams’ powerful score and David Bergman’s video design, this is a production to satisfy Sydney’s darkest imaginations on those cold winter nights.
Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is on view at the Roslyn Packer Theater until September 3.