Evan Placey’s fascinating ‘version’ of the familiar Jekyll and Hyde is much more a topical. intelligent, thoughtful, feminist take on Robert Lewis Stevenson’s novella than it is a dramatisation of it. And it’s rollicking good theatre – frank, uncompromising, fresh and often quite confrontational. Why, for example, is it acceptable for men in pubs to joke about women’s cunts, pussies, holes and the like but if women, at least, in the late Nineteenth Century, spoke openly about their vaginas and vulvas they were sneered at for filthy talk? Good point.
Placey’s play operates at lots of levels and in different worlds. In Victorian England, Dr Jeckyll has died and his widow Harriet is trying to continue his work which results in her developing an alter ego as a violent, forthright prostitute who isn’t going to be exploited by anyone – cue for some terrific nightclub scenes, some horrifying violence and another group of middle class women who are campaigning suffragette-style for women’s rights relating, for instance, to the Contagious (code for sexually transmitted) Diseases Act. In a completely different world a twenty first century girl is arrested for blogging a story (about Harriet Jeckyll) and using it to incite rebellion and public violence against patriarchal decisions relating, for example, to abortion. Then there’s a carefully woven in little sub plot about a senior 19th century judge and a rent boy. And the whole thing, as the prologue makes clear, is at yet another level, an exploration into the power of narrative. It isn’t straightforward but by golly, there’s plenty here to think about.
The National Theatre, which commissioned this play (I’m sure it will have a life beyond this production) has, as usual, enrolled a highly talented bunch to form its sixteen-strong Rep Company. There is, for example, outstanding work from Jenny Walser as Florence, the 21st Century blogger. She is naturalistic, convincing and utterly compelling especially in her long police cell interrogation in the second half. She is my hot tip for the ‘next’ Anna Maxwell-Martin. In those same scenes Joanna McGibbon excels as a decent police officer and there’s nice work from Douglas Wood as DC Lawrence as he batters away at Walser’s stunningly bright character, in an attempt to break her down. Elizabeth McCafferty makes a fine job of the shift from feisty but fairly conventional Harriet and the blood bespattered wild Flossie Hyde – and she hovers at the side of the stage during the 21st Century interludes.
This Jeckyll and Hyde is, however, first and foremost an ensemble piece and in that sense it forms a fine show case for the talents of every cast member – there’s a terrific range of accents, for example, all carefully used to demark character including lots of tiny, very effective cameos. And there’s humour too. Mohammed Mansaray is very funny as a preachy, sanctimonious 19th Century priest who occasionally and briefly slips – without a flicker – into 21st Century rap and bop. That must have taken a lot of rehearsal.