Jekyll and Hyde: thoughts from Creation Theatre’s director
We are delighted that this year Oxford World’s Classics will be partnering with Oxford theatre company Creation Theatre for their new production of Jekyll and Hyde, which is taking place at another Oxford institution — Blackwell’s Bookshop — from 8 June-6 July 2013. To celebrate our partnership, we asked the production’s Director, Caroline Devlin, for her thoughts on Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic novel Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
When did you first read Jekyll & Hyde?
Well, being Scottish I was brought up with an innate respect for Robert Louis Stevenson, but really fell in love with his books when I was about 17; Kidnapped and Catriona were my first reads. I was becoming really attracted to the romantic and gothic novels — The Mysteries of Udolpho for example — and so turned to Jekyll and Hyde feeling pretty confident of what to expect. It left me shocked. Being a novella it has the ability to really absorb you but with an economy of style and a necessity to get to the essence of the action that leaves you feeling slightly stunned. You are thoroughly immersed in the world and then spat out feeling dazed and, without sounding too melodramatic, grief-struck. I went straight back to the start and read it all again, desperate to re-visit the people and places, and seek to understand more of the hows and whys of Jekyll’s downfall.
Do you think gothic fiction translates naturally to stage adaptations?
There are definitely elements of gothic writing which lend themselves to a theatrical context; strong characterisations and the hugely atmospheric settings for a start. There is always a latent sense of danger too, whether that is danger from an outside source, or an inner conflict within our hero or heroine leading them into nail-biting situations. The fact that Jekyll and Hyde is a gripping thriller, full of suspense, certainly helps to keep an audience on the edge of their seats.
Do you think it is possible to be completely good or evil? Is it as simple as Jekyll is the hero and Hyde is the villain?
No — is the simple answer! Stevenson puts man’s evil nature centre stage (excuse the pun) and not only that, he makes it flesh; gives that evil a face, a name, and even feelings. It is Hyde who weeps in fear of the gallows in his last few days, Poole the butler even feels pity, so is Stevenson asking us to feel pity for a murderer and abuser? It is a complex interpretation of the baser elements of man’s character — shocking even now. In making Jekyll such a flawed hero, Stevenson forces the reader to question the pillars of society. The letters after Jekyll’s name signal him as a man of the highest achievement and learning in British society and if those at the top can court their evil nature, encourage it, and let it loose on society, then whom can we trust? Stevenson digs deep into the most pressing fears of Victorian Britain and strips it of the facade of gentility. In many ways Jekyll is the villain for giving Hyde life and then shielding his deeds, Hyde is just being Hyde.
What do you think is Stevenson’s conclusion on the concept of good and evil?
Well I reckon Stevenson was a canny Scot and knew that a book too overtly controversial would end up banned and he wanted a bestseller. Of course there is the moral at the end, that man trying to play God and dabbling with evil can only lead to doom and great unhappiness. But he raises so many questions within the book that it is impossible to suggest where his sympathies lay. It would take a thesis to break down these arguments fully but I would tentatively suggest that Stevenson was trying to raise the lid on repressed feelings in a society where people cannot be self-expressed leading to internalisation, festering desires, and therefore greater moral depravity. Early on in Jekyll’s confession he states that his desire to be respected amongst his peers led him to hide his true nature; in essence and quite by accident he became innately a liar and a fraud in all his relations. Stevenson lays the blame at the feet of a society rigid in its conformity. I think it’s a call for change and a call to re-evaluate the nature of man and desire.
What are your thoughts on the physical representation of Hyde written by Stevenson, and how will it be portrayed in your adaptation?
Well, it is a tricky one as there have been so many interpretations of the story over the years. Particularly successful are the film adaptations as the outward transformation is a make-up artist’s and designer’s dream. But I think the challenge in production is to capture the inner essence of Hyde. Stevenson mentions physical traits such as ‘troglodytic’ and ‘deformed’ — although no-one can say quite what the physical deformity is — but what is more important to Stevenson is the feeling Hyde evokes in people. It is almost as if buried deep in our human nature we can sense evil, like a dog can smell fear. Also, Hyde walks the streets of London, he takes hansom-cabs, goes to the bank. (In today’s banking establishments one could argue he would fit right in!) The point is he is not so physically repugnant that he can’t function on a day-to day basis. Utterson summarises that it is the ‘radiance of a foul soul that thus transpires through and transfigures its clay continent’ — so not too much of a challenge for the actor!
The novel is very descriptive of the Victorian era. How is this incorporated in your adaptation?
It is a brave picture of London that Stevenson paints: brave in that it is very unflattering. It is an isolated, overcrowded, seedy heart of the Empire; the great and the good living cheek-by-jowl with the lowest of the low. It is a dangerous London where a young man can lose himself in the dead of night; absently wandering abandoned streets. It is also a London that is a playground for Hyde to act out all his debased, violent impulses and as Jekyll describes, ‘Pleasures which…soon began to turn towards the monstrous’. So it is that dangerous London, a London that undercuts the Victorian image of middle-class pleasantry that I want to evoke. In a way London becomes a metaphor for Jekyll’s problem, how he wants to appear, and how he really is.
Creation Theatre’s new production of Jekyll and Hyde will be held in Blackwell’s Bookshop from 8 June-6 July 2013.
Robert Louis Stevenson was a Scottish novelist, essayist, poet, and traveler. The Oxford World’s Classics edition of Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Other Tales is edited by Roger Luckhurst, Senior Lecturer in English, Birkbeck College, University of London. Stevenson’s short novel, published in 1886, became an instant classic. It was a Gothic horror that originated in a feverish nightmare, whose hallucinatory setting in the murky back streets of London gripped a nation mesmerized by crime and violence.
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