With two excellent faithful gothic adaptations under their belt, Nick Lane’s adaptation of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde looks like a third. But this time, there’s a big change, and it’s superbly done.
There’s been so much banging about Blackeyed Theatre lately, myself included, you’d be forgiven for thinking this is synonymous with the partnership of John Ginman and Eliot Giuralarocca, responsible for an excellent adaptation of Dracula and a superb adaptation of Frankenstein. In reality, that’s only a recent addition to Blackeyed’s catalogue. But in spite of a successful ongoing run of Teechers, it’s gothic horror where they’ve made a name for themselves. So, by accident or by design, they’ve embarked on a third tale, and after the two big classics, Robert Louis Stevenson’s famous tale of Dr. Jekyll and his alter ego Mr. Hyde seems like an obvious choice. However – good job though I’m sure they could have done – it’s not Ginman and Giuralarocca in charge this time. Instead, it’s written and directed by Nick Lane.
Starting with the obvious difference: you don’t have the technique of dispensing with speakers and doing all sound on stage that made Dracula and Frankenstein so distinctive. Here, it’s back to the conventional sound system. Other than that, the staging is stylistically similar to before. But there is one big big big change which I suspect most of the audience were not aware of, and that is writing a completely new major character into the story. And not just a clumsily shoehorned love interest. The thing that makes this adaptation outstanding is that he makes it look like this is how the story was meant to be told all along.
The original book, like many books of its time, had no named female characters. Or did it? It is often said (not proven but a widely-held theory) that Robert Louis Stevenson burnt his original manuscript – some say it was because it was too racy for the prudish morals of Victorian society. It is also often said that his wife, Fanny, was both Robert’s greatest supporter and his harshest critic. That is Nick Lane’s inspiration for Eleanor Laynon, wife of Dr. Hasting Laynon. In the book, Hastings is an old colleague of Jekyll’s whose opinions on medical ethics drive them apart. In the play, Eleanor is intelligent, capable, and a very fast learner of science – things her husband cannot see, so set is he on the girl he saw in the music hall. And that’s where the problem begins. In her own words, it’s hard to love someone from a pedestal.
Far from a token woman, Eleanor is fully integrated into the story and becomes the second principal character after Jekyll/Hyde himself. There are countless less inspired gothic horrors where the heroine’s only function is for the leading man to ignore her warning; here, if anything, it’s the other way round. When Jekyll is prepared to stop, it’s Eleanor who says go. Eleanor’s heart is in the right place and she’s unaware of exactly how far the research has gone – but that doesn’t entirely explain things here. No, it’s more like she’s smart enough to twig what’s happening, but chooses not to. Nick Lane’s scripts handles this very cleverly: like Mrs. Stephenson in real life, Eleanor becomes Jekyll’s greatest supporter and harshest critic, gaining a purpose to life that her husband’s well-intentioned but misguided affection cannot. But unlike Mrs. Stephenson in real life, this has far worse consequences.
When a character’s decisions are so important to the story, it’s critical to get the character right – if any single decision fails to be believable, the entire plot fails to be believable. A good script isn’t enough – it has to be acted right too. And Paige Round is superb as Eleanor, getting all the emotions right in part with so much at stake. It’s vital to believe how passionately she believes in his goal of finding a cure for mental illnesses – and how passionately she believe in Henry Jekyll himself – to understand why it’s easier for her to choose not the realise the terrible truth when she could have done. I realise I’m overshadowing Jack Bannell here, because any stage adaptation of Jekyll and Hyde can only work with a very convincing Jekyll and Hyde transformation (if I may use the metaphor in a literal context), and he carries that excellently, but it’s rare for so much to depend on a second character, and this done excellently too.
With so much praise for the change made to this story, it would be easy for me to forget all the bits that stayed the same. As with any adaptation, it’s my strong belief that everything that matter must remain the same, and that’s done here. Apart from the addition of Eleanor, the rest of the story stays as it is, save for the usual condensing of characters needed for stage versions. Laynon and Utterson continue to play their major parts in the tale, with Eleanor’s plot threads seamless integrated into theirs, and the remaining parts are covered by all of the cast. No adaptation can cover ever detail of a book – certainly not when you add new stuff in – but the plot still goes smoothly and there’s no holes left. In fact, the closest I’d come to questioning something was the use the masks. It’s now pretty much a convention in stage version that the actor play Dr. J and Mr H. transforms from one to the other through expressions and posture rather than make-up, even though the story is dependent on other characters thinking they’re different people (something that slightly reminds me of the bit in The Wrong Trousers when Feathers McGraw removes his rubber glove and Wallace says “Good God, it’s you”), but I felt that using masks confused an area where we’re already taking liberties with naturalism. But that’s just incidental to the story.
Is this treatment of classic stories something we’ll see more of? Probably not. For every adaptation that make a change this radical which works, there’s ten adaptations that try the same and don’t: from uninspired additions of love interests and admonishing heroines and servants called Igor; to more original ideas that end up a shoehorned mess. But when the treatment goes wrong so often, it’s a huge testament to an adaptation when it goes right. Most theatre companies that have earned my respect do on the strength of a single creative team in a specific style, but Blackeyed Theatre have now impressed me with three creative teams inside and outside the gothic genre. What was just another entry on the touring circuit a few years ago is rapidly become a unmissable fixture, and Jekyll and Hyde is the latest chapter in this success story.