27 June, 2015
It’s more than 125 years since Robert Louis Stevenson published the novella that boldly recounted ‘The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.’ About the same number of professional stage and screen adaptations have ensued, of one of the most enduring psychological dramas ever conceived.
So, even with the best will and the keenest imagination, could there be any corner of the celebrated Scotsman’s daring narrative of 1886 yet unexplored? The latest production by the Archway Young Adults Workshop, staged at the venue in Horley from June 25 to 27, mocked the notion that it’s impossible to breathe new life into classic literature.
Elodie Bass, a member of the Archway since childhood, may not be the first writer to think beyond the traditional confines of the visual dynamic in this well-known plot. But all of the interpretations that come to mind, including the much-loved silver-screen renditions with Fredric March in 1931 and Spencer Tracy a decade later, rely on the central premise of one man’s physical transformation into another.
It’s a conceit even older than horror films themselves: the moment when noble, principled, handsome scientist Henry Jekyll takes a phial of the hard stuff and mutates into the evil, murderous and invariably toothy Edward Hyde. While the set piece is hugely entertaining, it’s also a slightly threadbare cliché of dramatic business.
Bass’ imaginative riff on the idea eschewed that obligation, and thus found a new angle on the intrinsic battle between good and evil that Stevenson dared to suggest are at play inside everyone. She opted, instead, to have Jekyll and Hyde portrayed by two central characters.
Thus Harry Fleming’s hedonistic, black-hearted Hyde appeared alongside Ben Andrew’s increasingly demented Jekyll, initially as an apparent fellow jailbird on a murder charge. Until, that is, we realised that one man was a horribly real figment of the other’s chemically-distorted imagination.
The struggle that plays out between them is not just between good and evil, but between reason and insanity, self-restraint and self-gratification and, given the murder charge hanging over Jekyll for crimes committed by his alter ego, between life and death.
That exposition was greatly enhanced, in the co-direction of Bass and Gary Andrews, by several vivid companion scenes. We saw the beginnings of Jekyll’s well-intentioned descent, as he administered what we now might call steroid injections to wretched, half-dead soldiers at war. Here he found temporary emotional solace in the friendship of Nurse North, played by Jo Tripp.
Henry’s wife Elizabeth, brought to life in a graceful performance by Sophie O’Shea, was at home missing her husband; when he returned, forever altered and clearly addicted to his serum, she was still missing the man she married. Meanwhile, back in the prison dungeons, Henry vs. Edward was getting to the good part.
As some delicious dialogue evolved between the two halves of the doctor’s tortured mind, Emily Atkinson’s Nurse Nelson affected to tend to Jekyll while aroused by Hyde’s degenerate carnality. As Jekyll’s poor wife returned to the scene, still desperately hoping to save her husband from his internal nemesis, she was drawn into the dénouement of the duel.
The entire company in this enterprising production deserve huge credit for finding freshness amid familiarity, in the distinguished story of a good man who is not himself.
Paul Sexton is a freelance print and broadcast music journalist who writes for the Sunday Times, Sunday Express and many other UK and international newspapers and magazines. He presents documentaries and shows for BBC Radio 2, regularly deputising for Bob Harris, and hosts his own ‘Music Junction’ show for Emirates Airlines. Hopelessly obsessed with music since childhood, he nevertheless enjoys a night off at the theatre, especially at community endeavours such as the Archway