Giant red paper lanterns float over a smoky Victorian London alleyway. Six actors in western clothes and eastern whiteface also marry East and West in what initially promises to be a vibrant, transnational reimagining of R. L. Stevenson’s gothic novel Jekyll & Hyde. With the addition of a female Jekyll and a textual deconstruction that incorporates a range of performance styles, there is a lot to process in Jonathan Holloway’s script and staging. Whilst each individual choice has merit, none are fully explored due to the overwhelming array of influences Holloway employs. The sum total creates a muddy hodge-podge of ideas rather less substantial than a focus on the development of one or two of them.
The show begins away from Stevenson’s story, with an older man in Chinese dress (who is not Chinese) sharing the discovery of a wonderful but horrific tale he wants to sell to a young woman in1920s dress, presumably a publisher. To pique her interest, he begins to tell the story contained in the tome’s pages. This unnamed pair reappear regularly as the story is acted out to the audience, using narration to preempt the action and distance the audience by reminding them it is indeed a story. This is one of several Brechtian devices employed; even though it is a useful one in plays addressing social issues, it is unclear what element of the story the alienation is meant to highlight and any contemporary social relevance.
The story that plays out from the old man’s book is the more traditional Victorian story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but Jekyll is a woman from Eastern Europe and the only woman doctor in the UK. It’s initially a great feminist touch, but the sex-crazed, manipulative Jekyll is hardly an empowering, feminist character. Having escaped war in her home country, she comes to London alone and uses her research to transform into a man. Though well-played by the physically expressive Olivia Winteringham, the character lacks depth and wears a costume that looks like it was put together in Camden Market rather than a costume workshop.
The set and lighting by Neil Irish are fantastic, though. Coordinated to create a horror film effect during particularly disturbing moments, they sumptuously support Holloway’s staging. Jon Nicholls’ sound design is atmospheric and sinister, well integrated with the other production elements. The costumes are somewhat inconsistent, with the men’s outfits appearing more historically accurate than the women’s. It is unsurprising that no costume designer credited.
The performances vary, with one of Chinese actors occasionally struggling to connect to the meaning in the language, creating unintended comedy. As this is a production incorporating two cultures, why shy away from using two languages? Other than a brief bit of either Cantonese or Mandarin at the start, the rest is in English. The story is well known enough to support a mix of languages, though with the melodrama, physical theatre, expressionism and naturalism already present, this would add further excess. As is, this adaptation feels predominantly English, with some East Asian design influence and a couple of Chinese performers. Though gorgeous to look at, the production never quite found the substance behind the façade.
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