Wednesday, November 12, 2014

'Jekyll & Hyde' at the Baron's Court Theatre, 8th November 2014

Robert Louis Stevenson's tale of a kind and gentle man chemically transformed into a vicious, violent beast has stood the test of time. Everyone, no matter how saintly, has a dark side they keep hidden from the public at large, base urges they suppress and disturbing acts that flicker unbidden across the mind late at night. Jekyll & Hyde explores the unleashing of the id, the story a Gothic nightmare that sits alongside Dorian Gray in exposing the hedonistic undercurrents that lurked underneath the veneer of Victorian civility.

I read the book a long time ago and I've seen numerous film adaptations of the story, but until this production I'd never seen it staged. The Baron's Court Theatre, nestling in the bowels of the Curtain's Up pub does a decent job of setting the scene. Rough hewn wooden beams gently sag under the weight of the drinkers above and the moth-bitten, wrought iron seating, no doubt swiped from some mouldy old music hall, gives you an immediate sense of history.

There we were, ready to plunge into baroque, nightmarish fantasy - but these good spirits didn't last too long. Now, there's one gigantic, glaring problem with this adaptation by director Mackenzie Thorpe, causing further issues along the way. This is that the adaptation appears to be written around surprising the audience with the twist that - spoiler alert - Dr Henry Jekyll and Edward Hyde are secretly the same person!

In terms of dramatic spoilers this is up there with being astonished that the weird old aristocrat inviting Jonathan Harker to his Transylvanian castle is secretly a vampire. Granted, given that the same actor plays both Jekyll and Hyde there's a tacit understanding that we know, but the structure of the script (intentionally or not) paints the reveal as an attempt at a genuine surprise.

This is primarily a symptom of keeping the original book's protagonist, Gabriel Utterson. Utterson is a Victorian hero firmly in the Harker mould; a noble, inquisitive and upstanding husband to a loving wife. And also very, very, very boring. Most modern adaptations either minimise his role or omit the character completely in favour of making Jekyll the focus - after all it's difficult to care about the worries of a nosy probate lawyer when there's a character offstage being torn asunder by his psychopathic split personality.

Not helping matters is Paul Christian Rogers' hammy performance, all raised eyebrows, arched back and quizzically furrowed brow as he struggles to figure out the conundrum of just what this mysterious relationship between Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde could possibly mean. It's so frustrating watching him slowly piece the puzzle together that you feel the urge to clamber on stage, shake him by his shoulders and shout: "They're the same person you idiot!"

The upshot of this focus on Utterson means neither Jekyll nor Hyde spend much time on stage. It's a pity, the brief scenes in which we see Jekyll battling his alter ego, or a rampant Hyde are the best bits by quite a wide margin. Performing the physical transformation from Jekyll to Hyde is a gift to any actor, and Warren Brooking obviously relishes playing the villain. Given that the rest of the characters are a wimpy, milquetoast bunch we end up quietly rooting for the violent and amoral Hyde. It's just a shame we don't get to see more of him.

The staging and technical aspects help out a little. The decision to plunge the audience into darkness after each scene works well, subtly echoing the tableaux of a penny dreadful and helping create an eerie atmosphere. Some clever sound design also creates atmosphere; a vaguely Victorian background hum of activity that fleshes out the minimal scenery and props.

Unfortunately these technical flourishes don't come close to cancelling out this adaptation's flaws; which ultimately boil down to minimising the interesting bits of Stevenson's tale in favour of the boring bits. The play's also incredibly straightforward - it makes no attempt to say anything remotely interesting about the Jekyll/Hyde dichotomy, reducing fertile allusory ground to a clich├ęd melodrama about forbidden love. There's the odd flicker of life (nearly all from Brooking's performance), but that's not nearly enough to save the piece, that drags even at 90 minutes.

Jekyll & Hyde is at the Baron's Court Theatre until the 16th of November 2014.  Tickets available here.

Thanks to Views From the Gods for the ticket.  Review reproduced there by permission.

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