Adapted and directed by Kip Williams. Roslyn Packer Theatre, Sydney, August 10 and September 7.
Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case starts not with Dr Jekyll or Mr Hyde but with Jekyll’s close friend, the lawyer Gabriel Utterson. Utterson is a man of austere habits. He mortifies his flesh while being tolerant of more spirited acquaintances and perhaps a little envious of them. He is considered “the last reputable acquaintance and the last good influence in the lives of down going men”.
Kip Williams starts his Strange Case there too, sweeping away the almost universal misunderstanding that clings tenaciously to the novella. Stevenson’s allegory about the complexity of human nature and the constraints of a censorious society has become shorthand for a rigid split between good and evil. Williams returns to the book for an infinitely more nuanced and fascinating view.
A return visit to the production was enlightening. It’s such a complex piece of work that it’s impossible to take everything in at one sitting.
Part black-and-white horror movie, part thriller, part psychological drama and entirely enthralling, Williams’s faithful adaptation restores Utterson to his central place in the narrative. As Matthew Backer’s exquisitely refined and restrained Utterson says, he will be Mr Seek in search of Mr Hyde.
And what a search it is. Williams’s cine-theatre form, a fusion of live action, live video and pre-recorded video, makes all sorts of magic possible. All hail the superb, and superbly unobtrusive, onstage camera operators.
The team responsible for the greatly lauded Picture of Dorian Gray (2020) returns, including Marg Horwell (sets), Nick Schlieper (lights) and composer Clemence Williams, whose score is a character in its own right. Arguably they make an even more persuasive case here for cine-theatre than in Dorian Gray.
Strange Case inhabits a nightmarish, unmoored place of foggy streets, unattached rooms, distant corners and secret places. Cameras insinuate themselves everywhere like smoke tendrils, spying on every encounter and showing faces in unsparing close-up.
Crucially, the form means the incomparable Ewan Leslie can be not only Jekyll and Hyde, but another key player in the tale, Dr Lanyon. And he can be Sir Danvers Carew, and Utterson’s cousin Richard Enfield, and more. It’s a thrilling display of old-style virtuosity that summons thoughts of John Barrymore, a legendary Jekyll and Hyde on screen in 1920. Leslie even has something of Barrymore’s famous profile.
As Utterson’s investigation leads him closer to the truth of Jekyll’s experiments on himself, Williams makes explicit what has been more opaquely rendered by Stevenson. Stevenson makes carefully vague references to the underbelly of Victorian society but much can be read between the lines. Utterson is more like Jekyll than he may appear on the page, just less courageous.
Breaking away from the monochrome aesthetic that rules most of Strange Case, Williams allows Jekyll and Utterson an explosion of freedom – a delirious touch of Barrie Kosky in the night, if you will. It’s brilliantly unexpected and rather touching. Colour starts to make its way into design palette but it hasn’t really been missed, such is the extraordinary lusciousness of the black-and-white video.
Up to this point Strange Case has been absorbing but cerebral. Now it switches gears and becomes deeply personal. Jekyll’s passionate discourse on pleasure, shame, the pursuit of self-knowledge and the anguish of the struggle is shared with Utterson not in a letter but with him.
As Jekyll talks he and Utterson sit together on a bench, the setting in Stevenson of a moment of great revelation for Jekyll. The desolation is intense but so too is the connection. They, we, are one.
Sydney Theatre CompanyThe season ends in Sydney on September 10.
A version of this review first appeared in The Australian on August 11, 2022.