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Brighton Fringe 2021

Low Down

Written directed, technically realised and produced by J D Henshaw.  Set design by J D Henshaw and the Sweet Venues team. Till June 26th.


The divided self. Is it a surprise that Edinburgh-born R D Laing posited such a theory from the soil that bore the same Calvinist-inflected imagination of Robert Louis Stevenson in his great exploration of dualism, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde? It did for Laing of course, and gifted TB to Stevenson. Written 1885 (published January 1886) this daemonically haunted work has stalked theatre and film for over 100 years, leaping out of pitch dark to drag in and sometimes devour an adaptor. Only actor Frederick March seems to get out safely dead. And there’s Dave Allen.

Dundonian J D Henshaw comes at Jekyll & Hyde with a sidelong quizzical humour to Allen’s homage (if you don’t know Allen’s sketch, google it). Henshaw’s first of all grasps Edinburgh as scientific cauldron where bodies are dragged in for experiment, no questions asked. Remember Burke and Hare in 1828? This is a place where the Athens of the North devours itself in inquiry, ultimately experiments on itself as scientist Dr Jekyll does.

So why not give it the latest instruments for measurement, as in 1897 Bram Stoker does with Dracula? The wax cylinder phonographs (here faithfully caught and replicated by Henshaw as part of a remarkable sound design) are measuring aides-memoires, diaries of one who disappears, as Dr Jekyll records her increasing alarm after complaisant taming exercises on her alter ego Hyde. But will she be the only user of such devices?

We move to London with its hypocrisy and child prostitution, unbid desires and vicious class assumptions wholly intact. Enough to divide a well-bred woman from her deepest desires, her dark acknowledgments of flesh and savage mutuality. And a rampant sensuality that finds sex only a staging post to ride in on. ‘You must suffer me to go my own dark way’ pronounces Hyde. How far is that really true for Jekyll too?

Written directed designed and produced by J D Henshaw (who’s also the technical facilitator) it’s an extraordinary undertaking, since all the narration is fresh, inflected with the original, but tailored for one very different kind of actor.  Set design of a desk, some books, with sound design and a few classical props are Henshaw’s too developed with the Sweet Venues team.

With other characters purged, Henshaw’s script is both visceral where needed, and – necessarily more so than Stevenson – couched in an agon of intelligent solipsism. It’s the mode of increasingly terrified enquiry, in a spruced-up modern Victoriana, recognisably period in glancing expressions but clean and piercing. Jekyll’s are the words of an intellectual literally out of her own depth.

Heather-Rose Andrews gives a performance reaching out for the superlatives once attached to John Abalafia’s 1969 Metamorphosis, till Steven Berkoff took it over and morphed it again. Temptingly gender-fluid this version’s performatively feminised, a reclamation of all genders’ experience but specifically empowering women. The dual self can’t split gender: that would reinforce stereotypes and be false to the vision. Here Jekyll and Hyde are specifically ‘she’.

Dark-suited with a white shirt, an androgynous sense of flux attending her garb, Andrews needs no change of dress, rending of clothes, no more indeed than a clench of jaw and sudden rictus of agony or relaxation into sheer desire for flesh in all senses, to convey exactly the mode she’s in.

Most of the time Andrews keeps her Jekyll and Hyde selves remarkably similar: upright, or occasionally moving forward as if stalking likes Holmes on a scent. Everything’s told in the tone of voice and the look she gives straight out. Narrationally Andrews hold herself still, and all else flows.

We’re treated first to the education of Hyde, the chemically-induced under-self that Jekyll has brought out to realise but at the same time purge, tame, perhaps cast forth in the quest for greater purity and (less acknowledged) a strange wholeness: those untold desires she doesn’t know she possesses though, are coherent, and perhaps threaten dominance. Those desires flood a chemical, alchemical Faust. with Mephistopheles bursts out with the swallowing of serum, is not stoppered with it.

At first Jekyll seeks to tame by teaching name and recognition in a series of Sets. The colour red entices, and other key words. I’m not sure how this squares with Hyde’s becoming swiftly as eloquent as Jekyll: after all they share the same brain with the same word-hoard. But the effect’s concertina’d perhaps and we soon have an alter-ego with ambitions of her own.

Sexuality and violence fuse uniquely in this adaptation. Seeking sexual fulfilment Hyde rides a man and in their mutual climax explodes with pleasure as she smashes his jaw and feels him pulp beneath her. That’s complete pleasure, compete sensuality ands Andrews’ rapt concentration of it – and of its contemplative aftermath – is mesmerising. Knowing Jekyll wants to compensate her victims, Hyde contemptuously leaves change.

Later there’s no reason to, a frightened young maid who draws her smile – Hyde’s troubled by her smile and her own return of one – as she perpetrates something else and the young woman, safely behind a window, screams. Hyde’s giving pleasure from afar excites and perplexes her, though the denouement will have been traumatising to her inadvertent object. And then there’s the case of the child Eliza Davies, whom Hyde tramples. All based on the original, these events are dealt with from a distance after the one added by Henshaw: the sexually violent one.

What precipitates crisis is the gradual taking-over of Jekyll by Hyde, as the original serum fails to work and Jekyll involuntarily becomes Hyde whilst waking. Andrews’ capacity for shuddering facials that skidder across is worked to a terror here, as both expressions vie and cross each other on Andrews’ face.

What Jekyll’s solution might be we might have read, though it’s ambiguous. What Hyde’s is too we’d guess at, but Henshaw and Andrews project something very different as an outcome

This adaptation not only interiorises the whole process, returns us to the vile and violent laboratories of the story’s epicentre: it also reframes the debate. Andrews’ dual characters narrate with a growing self-awareness, pleasurable or not as the case may be. Dragging it into a disquisition Henshaw and Andrews then ensure it’s the most viscerally convulsive realisation of Jekyll or Hyde imaginable.