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  • Writer's pictureMark Howitt

Jekyll & Hyde


Everyone knows the story of Jekyll & Hyde, don’t they?

Well, until this week, I didn’t, not really. I had a vague idea, something about two sides, two personalities of the same person, good and evil, perhaps some medical experiment gone wrong but I was maybe getting that muddled up with Victor Frankenstein and his creation. Although to be clear - regular readers won’t be surprised here - I have no more read Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel than I had Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella the Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, published some 70 years later. In fact, if you’d asked me which of the two personae was the evil twin so to speak, I’d have plumped for Jekyll, I mean that’s a pretty nasty sounding name.

But if a week’s a long time in politics, it’s an age in the world of Edinburgh theatre and literature. It turns out good and evil aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, if you were drawing a Venn diagram - and who doesn’t love a Venn diagram - the two circles representing good and evil would overlap and that’s where you’d find Dr Jekyll.

The doctor doesn’t come out of this shabby story too well. None of us do. We’re all implicated.

The Story of the Play

Gary McNair is an award-winning writer based in Glasgow. I’ve never been disappointed seeing anything written by him, favourites Born to Run (2012) and Letters to Morrissey (2017). Jekyll & Hyde is his adaption of RLS’s novella and his first production to be staged at the Lyceum in Edinburgh. I saw it last Saturday.

Like those earlier plays, Jekyll & Hyde is a one man show but unlike Born to Run (actually, a one woman show, an incredible performance from Shauna MacDonald) it’s not conducted on a treadmill; and there is no Morrissey soundtrack, although the lyrics of How Soon is Now? “I am human and I need to be loved / Just like everyone else does” seem all too appropriate here.

From the moment he appears on stage, Forbes Masson as London lawyer Gabriel Utterson is captivating, a brooding presence drawing the audience in to what at times is a hideous tale. That’s not to say that the play is not without humour. When Utterson is presented with a confession from Hyde, I strongly suspected that the line “Honestly I was so proud of myself. Thought I’d fuckin’ cracked it.” was not lifted directly from RLS’s original text. A truly magnificent performance from one of Scotland’s finest actors.

In his introduction to the playtext, McNair explains what an honour it is for him to be presenting Jekyll & Hyde at the Lyceum twenty years after he first set foot in the theatre:

I fell in love with the Lyceum instantly - yes, it was grand and beautiful and there was a real majesty to it but I loved the fact that it somehow retained an intimacy that made the space cosy and inviting and made the work feel very intimate.

That intimate feel no more so than in this production with a minimalist set designed by Max Jones and sparse, creepy lighting from Richard Howell ensuring that the audience’s focus never strays too far from Utterson.

My memories of the Lyceum now go back half a century and although I haven’t kept a list (I wish I had) this production is up there with the very best I have ever seen. It’s everything that theatre should be, entertaining, challenging and it oozes quality.

The Search For the Book

Not much of a search. Just rocked up to my local library on Tuesday morning, went to the classics shelf and there it was, bingo. Read it that afternoon.

Right. OK, I have habit of talking about books that I haven’t read. And obviously there are more books in this world that I haven’t read than those that I have, including - but not limited to - Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Absolute Beginners by Colin MacInnes. That doesn’t make me a bad person, I think it’s important to say that.

I have read old stuff before, like Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Flaubert, read that Alexandre Dumas one about the tulips last year. Now that I think about it, I had read some Robert Louis Stevenson before this week, his Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes. Or rather I bought it 25 years ago and took it to St Jean du Gard five years in a row on holiday intending to read it, but ended up drinking café au lait in Bar Stevenson watching the Tour de France on a flickering TV screen. (Lance - a Jekyll and Hyde character if there was.)

Dickens, Collins, Flaubert, Dumas were writing at approximately the same time as Stevenson, and I enjoyed their books, they’re real page turners. This feels disrespectful, but I found Jekyll & Hyde by RLS a struggle, to me it’s clunky, oddly constructed, concluding with two epistolary narratives which together account for a third of the book. That might make me a bad person, but I’m not the villain. No, that role is clearly filled. Or I thought it was until I got involved in all of this.

But the important thing is the themes that run throughout the book, the duality of human nature, nature v the supernatural, temptation, reputation, fear of scientific progress, the degeneration of civilisation. That’s what made the book an instant success on publication and those themes resonate as much today as they did then. I think I might have redeemed myself there. The good guy I am not, but I feel I’ve redeemed myself a wee bit.

The Remarkable Incident of the School Children

I went back to the Lyceum on Wednesday afternoon for seconds.

Incredibly, it was even better knowing what was coming. There’s a line towards the end, a simple line, a bit of a plot spoiler here but the source material has been knocking around for 139 years, four words spoken on the death of Dr Lanyon, “Well, there you go”, which Forbes Masson says softly, with an air of resignation, defeat almost, makes a knowing glance towards the audience before turning on his heels. That in itself makes this production of Jekyll & Hyde worth seeing twice. And I’m not ruling out going back a third time.

At the Wednesday matinee, I was sitting in the upper circle, in the two rows in front of me a school party. I’m pretty useless at estimating anyone’s age but given that there are lower and upper boundaries to the age of children attending high school, my guess is that they were 14 or 15. Prior to the start of the play, heads had been buried in phones and the students were initially disinterested. (Uninterested? Is there a difference? I could have checked with their teacher.) But within about five minutes of curtain up they were, without exception, mesmerised.

An hour later, as Forbes Masson took his final ovation, the lad in front of me stood up, pulled on his hoodie, and said to anyone with in listening range, “That’s the best thing I’ve ever seen.”

As reviews go, that’s worth its weight in gold.

Jekyll and Hyde continues at Edinburgh's Lyceum Theatre until 27 January, then tours to Perth Theatre (31 Jan - 3 Feb), Dundee Rep (7-10 Feb) and Macrobert Arts Centre, Stirling (15-17 Feb).

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