Theatre review: Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

The team behind the adaptation of The Picture of Dorian Gray once again mix theatre and cinema.

When you’re on a good thing stick to it, I guess. And after his success with Dorian Gray, director Kip Williams and his team of creatives offer up another technical tour de force utilising the skills of two exceptional actors and a horde of skilled video technicians. 

This time it’s an exploration of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic tale, Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and the aesthetic hovers very successfully somewhere between a gothic novella and a Hammer Horror film.

The video elements are mostly presented in black and white which adds a further layer of film noir styling perfectly matched to this dark gothic detective story.                

And it is impressive to watch. Soaring screens split and move, echoing the duality of the human condition as videographers zoom in on performances that are, for the most part, obscured from the audience’s live perception. It is quite voyeuristic, and like cinema, we are primarily only permitted to see what the camera chooses for us to see. So that may indeed be the rub.

Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde ends up being more cinema than theatre, often denying the audience the personal viewpoint that makes live theatre a unique experience. More than simply enhancing the live experience, this time the staging consciously excludes us from the action, forcing our primary experience to be with the screens. 

And that is both frustrating and wonderful. Wonderful because we get to see the amazing craft of two exceptional performers in close up with every nuanced reaction or drooling snarl in vivid detail. Wonderful as we are allowed to share in the process of cinematic creation. Frustrating because we are often denied the core joy of theatre, the one on one engagement between audience and performer. In this format everything is filtered for us, and that can be quite distancing for the audience.   

Ewen Leslie and Matthew Backer in Sydney Theatre Company’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, 2022. Photo: Daniel Boud.

Nevertheless, both actors are mesmerising, cycling through levels of intensity from calm Victorian restraint to wild animal passion. Matthew Backer anchors the show as its key narrator and investigator, Gabriel Utterson. He is superb – soulful and searching – and perfectly captures the English gentleman challenged by the onslaught of a new reality.  

Ewen Leslie in an incredible, virtuoso performance, plays everyone else – slipping through a myriad of wig and costume changes effortlessly, and defining each character so completely that each lives with a convincing truth, and we soon believe each of them are present individually.

This is another clever echo of the proposition that multiple personas inhabit each of us, and this role-doubling becomes integral to the theme. Leslie delivers a deliciously dangerous collection of characters and is riveting to watch. 

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Williams sets a cracking pace, and the actors fly convincingly through the poetic text, building the tension skilfully through to the climax. Frustrating no doubt that a medical emergency in the audience broke that tension near the end on opening night, but the consummate professionals were able to pick it up and keep going once the emergency was in hand. But it’s nevertheless a long show, approaching two hours with no interval, so don’t skip the bathroom visit preshow!

There were a few moments where Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde felt repetitive and the script could be pruned, particularly the somewhat incongruous party scene with added can-can. It’s a confusing departure from an otherwise tightly curated text.  

It is clear a lot of preparation and research has gone into this meticulously detailed production, and the completeness of the society with which we are presented is rewarding. From the impeccable English accents coached by Charmain Gradwell through to the superb video concepts and live camera work, the passion and focus required to create a work of this complexity is clearly evident. It’s definitely an interesting evening and worth a viewing, but you may find it more a cinematic than theatrical experience. 

Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde
A Sydney Theatre Company production
By Robert Louis Stevenson
Adapted and Directed by Kip Williams
Designer: Marg Horwell
Lighting Designer: Nick Schlieper
Composer: Clemence Williams
Sound Designer: Michael Toisuta
Video Designer: David Bergman
Assistant Video Director: Sarah Hadley
Video Editor: Susie Henderson
Associate Director: Ian Michael
Understudy: Gabriel Fancourt
Tickets $58 – $129

At the Roslyn Packer Theatre until 10 September 2022

Dennis Clements is a NIDA Acting graduate and has a BA focused on Literature, Theatre and Journalism. He won the Theatre prize in his graduation year from Curtin University in WA. He has extensive leading role performance credits in both professional and community based companies, and has directed numerous productions for Bankstown Theatre Company and Ashfield Musical society. He is a registered Marriage Celebrant if you want to get hitched, and has also reviewed for Australian Stage online theatre magazine for several years.