Thanks to the gothic novel The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Edinburgh writer Robert Louis Stevenson, the names of Jekyll and Hyde have gone in to common parlance to describe the paradox of duality. The novel was set in London but has been brought home to Edinburgh, the city that inspired it, by the National Theatre of Scotland (NTS) and Selkie Productions.
The near 100 year old venue of Leith Theatre, that is on the Theatres at Risk register, lends its combination of faded grandeur, peeling plaster and lack of heating while being host to modern innovation to the theme of duality, making it perfect for this homecoming of RLS’s famous tale.
The audience is greeted by ushers dressed in elegant butler costumes of the period as they check for Covid passports. En route to the 1500 capacity auditorium, some of the custom built sets for the film are passed by, creating early intrigue for the unique theatrical and cinematic event.
Through the headsets, that on Friday 25th February provided optional audio description, NTS Artistic Director Jackie Wyllie gave a welcome message before the screen showing faux theatre curtains fades to make way for the opening credits in old film style. That sense of recreating a bygone style remains for much of the black and white film, making yet another paradox in this highly modern style of production born of Covid.
While this adaptation from Edinburgh filmmaker Hope Dickson Leach retains all the principal characters of the RLS original, there is a shift of emphasis from his examination of the embodiment of good and evil to a more political one of wealth and power. Gabriel Utterson (Lorn Macdonald) is a lawyer and friend of Henry Jekyll (Henry Pettigrew) who becomes suspicious when his friend alters his will to bequeath his estate to the mysterious Edward Hyde, his alleged assistant. When questioned Jekyll says that this man ‘makes my life shine brighter’ yet remains a shadowy figure to Utterson.
From the start, the concept of what counts as ‘good’ is in question. Is it for personal gain and aggrandisement or is it to benefit the common good? From the two brothers outraged at the conditions of their father’s will to brewery owner Sir Danvers Carew (David Hayman) who practised the ‘economy of subjugation’ we are faced with the challenge. The writers of this adaptation, Hope Dickson Leach and Vlad Butcea, bring social injustice of the time to fore in this version by highlighting the living and working conditions of the ruthless Carew’s brewery workers. The shift in emphasis is shown through in the decline of Utterson’s treatment of his servants over the piece, proving even the most decent human beings can be corrupted by the dual dangers of wealth and power.
Despite one brief ‘Acorn Antiques’ moment and another poor shot where the backs of two worker take up too much of screen as Utterson struggles to be seen in the middle, the film remains atmospheric throughout. Gruesome eye shielding images of both Hyde and Carew feature as the latter gets leech treatment from Dr Lanyon (Peter Singh), who in a late scene wears an unfortunately anachronistic dress kilt outfit. Shot with a mix of pre-shot outdoor scenes interspersing the production, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is a rather long film (2 hours and 40 mins) made from a short novel. It will be streaming to 80 UK cinemas from February 2022 with the feature film and Sky Arts TV presentation due in 2023.