FringeReview Scotland 2022
It all begins with a will reading in the offices of Mr. Utterson, our guide on a story that ostensibly is of how his friend, Dr. Jekyll transforms into the hideous Mr. Hyde and causes mayhem and havoc on the streets with what appears like impunity. Now transferred to Edinburgh, from London the tale takes on new impetus as Utterson is introduced to the caricature which is Sir Danvers Carew, erstwhile bully and MP. Carew is hell bent on the modernization of the city of Edinburgh by clearing out the poor and erecting monuments and profitable enterprises for himself. His corruption captures and corrupts Utterson, utterly. As the demise of the Carew follows so to do the schemes of greed and avarice whilst the backdrop of the fear and descent of Hyde becomes a side show. We are focused on the very real debauchery of Utterson. Unlike in the novel, Utterson solves this puzzle.
When Stevenson wrote his masterpiece of gothic horror which was a whodunit, there was shock and awe for the readership. It is over a century since we had the opportunity to be surprised by anything the novel has to give. Not only is it a standard text for the gothic genre but both the Scottish and the English systems of education use it as a core and set text in their exams at GCSE and National /Higher.
It is inescapably stuck in an academic mire.
As thousands of students and teenagers grasp the thistle of its structure and try to imagine the mystery of it, it leaves those of us with the wish to reinvigorate it with a problem. There may be little by way of any leeway to start to show a new and reimagined straight version of the story as it is so well known but what if we take the themes and get round the characters in an entirely different manner?
And that is precisely what the National Theatre of Scotland has done. But a warning if you are taking your class to see it in the cinema – this is NOT the book, nor a classical interpretation of the text.
What it is, is a slow burning example of why a story needs to build and once built it can pop off in any direction when at the tiller you have tremendously creative people who have the heart of the story in the middle of their production.
As Utterson, Lorn MacDonald, warms slowly. At the beginning Utterson is pitched as obsequious and toadying. By the end he has transformed, as if the potion of cash has corrupted absolutely. I found his initial sycophantic nature a little at odds with knowledge of his character in the text but also found the early exchanges a little less than convincing. I did wonder if my own prejudice and expectation had tainted my point of view. By the end, however, he had built Utterson into the embodiment of Hyde in such a manner that I was captured.
Utterson is ably supported by a plethora of notable performances not least the heft of Alison Peebles, playing the character of Poole who is originally a butler, David Hayman as the odious Sir Danvers Carew and tam Dean Burn, channeling his inner contempt for corrupt politics into a councilor in search of an expense account. They give the piece technical savvy, but it requires so much more than cameos. I found Henry Pettigrew as Jekyll totally convincing and the suspicious Dr. Lanyon, played by Peter Singh highly compelling. As for Inspector Hay, played by Ali Watt he ably played the hapless participant in a piece of Victorian drama that avoided the descent into the melodramatic gap down which it could have fallen.
I watched it online so am unable to compare the live action performance which I believe would have added further to the joy of its performance. The camera work at times I found a touch clumsy with some framing an issue. As it was designed originally as a theatre and live action piece some of that can be forgiven but there are also some sound issues which see variance in levels which are slightly less forgivable.
It has a very creative hand in the director’s seat with Hope Dickson Leach, who also penned the script. There were sequences that I really enjoyed – especially the dream sequence. There was a true understanding of the genre as the filming in black and white gave it the right level of gothic spectacle. The point of Stevenson’s story is sadly neglected whilst the narrative is mercilessly exploited and here, we have not one but these two unfortunate dangers of a text becoming a classic being put right. Coming to a cinema near you!