The stage loves a mystery. Swirling fog from handheld machines, a row of lamplights carving out a city street, a villain lurking in the shadows. The Roslyn Packer theatre is a portrait of the night and all its promise and dangers; a carefully curated backdrop for a classic story.
Director Kip Williams is known for wielding aesthetic signifiers as both prop and portal, using live and pre-recorded video feeds to elevate theatre, and suggest other worlds on mostly-bare stages.
With these techniques, he created a dazzling tour-de-force in The Picture of Dorian Gray, which starred Eryn Jean Norvill as all 26 characters on a score of screens, and which will soon be touring to Broadway and the West End.
Now, Williams and his collaborators on that work – including designer Marg Horwell, lighting designer Nick Schlieper (in his 100th show for the Sydney Theatre Company), composer Clemence Williams, and crucially, video designer David Bergman – have returned to Victorian England to explode another novella about duplicity, duality, and a touch of horror: Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, by Robert Louis Stevenson.
There are two actors this time, who trade paragraphs from the novella narrated in third-person (Dorian Gray also prioritised this type of reading, rather than a more traditional adaptation). Ewen Leslie – the rock-solid actor’s actor whose whole face seems to re-shape around an emotion – takes on Jekyll and Hyde (as well as other minor roles); and Matthew Backer plays Gabriel John Utterson, whose hands – often shown in closeups on screens – and startling openness are the steady-beating heart of the show. The pair perform scenes as they narrate them.
The text is about who we are in public and how much that may differ from our true, private selves – and in many ways, this production is made to honour Bergman’s design: camera operators weave across the stage, as the video team conspires with the audience to show what’s happening in shadows, behind screens, or tucked against walls. The cameras and screens move across the stage, guiding us through the play and beckoning us close.
With a noir-ish black and white camera feed, and with Schlieper’s lights delighting in shadow, the play embraces the mystery elements of the original story: Utterson is confused by the apparent connection behind the brutish Edward Hyde, who has been terrorising London, and his friend Henry Jekyll, a well-respected doctor. He fears that Jekyll has been intimidated and blackmailed.
Of course, Jekyll and Hyde are the same man – the monstrous Hyde persona the result of an experiment gone tragically wrong.
The audience knows the twist before the play begins (this is a story so ubiquitous that a second, musical stage adaptation opened in Sydney this month), but this production treats the mystery as sincere and sets the stakes high, with Clemence Williams’ taut score and Backer and Leslie’s rising panic; we spend most of the play not quite glimpsing Hyde’s true face.
But there’s a density to this production that makes it leaden; a barrage of text that lands awkwardly, and turns dull with overload. It’s hard to find clarity in scenes so packed with language, and the actors speak quickly, urgently, and in a rhythm so in-sync it’s as overwhelming as it is impressive. Thankfully, Backer’s steadfast Utterson holds us together as his elegance gives way to horror and despair.
Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde feels a little too like well-worn territory for Williams; when Hyde descends into the behind-closed-doors-depravity of Victorian vice, the driving club beat and glittery hedonism could come right out of Dorian Gray. Still, the moment is a welcome lightness, and the opening night audience – freshly shaken from a briefly stopped show due to a medical emergency in the audience – clung to it with whoops of pleasure and applause.
It’s the beginning of the end of the play, and here Williams’ and Bergman’s austerity and restraint begin to collapse, to make way for revelations. The book’s final chapter – Henry Jekyll’s Full Statement of the Case – is written in the first person, and as the play switches to “I” pronouns and Leslie takes ownership of the story, its remaining twenty minutes are all the richer for it: our connection to the actors becomes more personal and present.
It helps too that this is where, for key moments, the screens fall away, and we can look directly at the actors. Finally, Jekyll and Utterson meet on a bare stage, on a bench, as Jekyll’s confession reaches towards its hardest truths. (He’s holding an additional prop that is not worth spoiling, but which haunts the intimate tableau). Jekyll lays his head in Utterson’s lap, and Backer is remarkable here: he looks at Jekyll, the friend he knows he has lost forever, hands suspended in the air: does he settle them in his hair knowing the full scope of his experiments and crimes? Does he give comfort? The moment of decision is agonising and deeply human.
And then the narrative style slips further, into the second person, as Utterson tells Jekyll’s story for him – finally acknowledging that Hyde’s and Jekyll’s actions were linked: “you did this”, “you heard me say this”. This conceit is Williams’ own, and it’s a smart one: it connects us to Utterson’s grief.
It comes too late, but the reverberating feeling of finally meeting the actors’ eyes could just get you over the line. Finally, beyond the impressive choreography of camerawork and inventive framing, after a barrage of words and an arrangement of shadows, the human side of the story lands in the chest. Finally, this story hurts.
Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde runs at Sydney Theatre Company until 3 September