Theatre Review: Jekyll and Hyde @ The Birmingham REP
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What do One Direction fanfiction, feminism, and Robert Louis Stevenson have in common? This play, apparently.
Playwright Evan Placey (Orange Polar Bear, Girls Like That) takes the reigns from Stevenson and attempts to breathe new life into the nineteenth century novel. In theory, updating Jekyll and Hyde for a young, modern audience with a cast of up and coming actors from The Young REP makes perfect sense, but the execution left much to be desired.
Image courtesy of the Birmingham Reperatory Theatre
Set after Dr Henry Jekyll’s death, the play opens with a focus on Jekyll’s wife, Harriet. It’s worth noting that the original novel made no mention of a wife, nor indeed any female characters. Stevenson is notorious for his male-saturated work that’s odd even for its time. By imbuing the play with a very strong female presence, Placey may believe he’s rectifying Stevenson’s mistakes; instead, it feels a little bit like he’s missed the point.
Without going full English student on you, there are reasons that a writer might not include any female characters that aren’t flat out misogyny. Not excuses, mind you, but reasons. One such reason is the latent homosexuality that can be read into Jekyll and Hyde. A homosexuality that had to be subtle in Victorian England. A homosexuality that is not at all present in Placey’s Jekyll and Hyde.
To be fair, it’s certainly not the only reading of an alter ego such as Hyde. It could be an equally viable allegory for substance abuse or the pressure of a good reputation in high society. Most likely, it’s a little of all of them. Placey updates this duality between Jekyll and Hyde to focus on the anonymity of internet culture. I think this is a smart move, and a really interesting element to throw into a 21st century retelling of the story. My issue is, again, with the execution of it.
The first half of the play is littered with internet slang. Occasionally Harriet mutters things like “colon asterisk” in place of a kiss on the cheek. In the second half of the play, it’s revealed that the reason for this is because the adaptation is actually fanfiction being written and uploaded to the internet by a teenage girl called Florence. And this is where things begin to get incredibly convoluted. Florence inadvertently inspires a violently radical feminist movement to take to the streets, and gets herself arrested for doing so. The 21st century feminist protest is then blended together with a suffragette protest in a way that feels incredibly shallow.
The implication is that women are still fighting for their rights, but the play makes no attempt to acknowledge the differences between then and now, nor the intricacies of feminism in the 21st century. Perhaps reducing all of feminism into 5 women traipsing across a stage shouting is meant to be easier for the younger audience this is supposedly aimed at, but I think they’re smarter than that.
The play oscillates between being wildly patronising to its younger audience (and actors) and giving them scenes that feel incredibly inappropriate. There’s a brothel that Hyde frequents, and it’s used, among other things, as the place that a strange subplot between a very rich Judge and a young, male prostitute. Their relationship is sexual, abusive, and brimming with internalised homophobia. The Judge threatens the boy on multiple occasions, acts violently toward him, and treats him like an object. It’s viscerally uncomfortable to watch, and not for the right reasons.
The scenes add nothing to the play, and have no implications in the long run. It feels like very disrespectful lip service to LGBTQ struggles, but, more than that, it feels like a kick in the teeth. As I said before, Jekyll and Hyde has been read as an allegory for being gay in Victorian England. Even if this isn’t a reading that Placey favours, the play should, at the very least, acknowledge it in a way that doesn’t play into the delightful trope that all gay men are also paedophiles.
The whole thing feels unnecessarily, uncomfortably, subtly homophobic, especially when you consider that the only two other references to queerness are an offhand comment at the feminist rally about gay people not being able to hold hands and a policewoman fangirling about Harry Styles/Louis Tomlinson slash fiction. I’ve never wanted to walk out of a theatre more than at that latter moment, actually. Apparently, gayness is synonymous with titillation, abuse, and fighting for the right to… hold hands? Sure.
As someone who both adores nineteenth century Gothic fiction and thinks that 21st century fanfiction is an incredibly nuanced and interesting space for minorities to explore themes that mainstream media refuses to, this play was incredibly disappointing. I left with the desire to write my own Jekyll and Hyde play, which I suppose counts for something.
In its favour, I will say that The Young REP were really, really impressive, and had they been given better material to work with, they would have really shone. I want to highlight Peter Harrison (who played Dr Lanyon) and Brandon Hinds (Utterson) as standout performers who really brought a depth and believability to their characters. Niamh Franklin (Jekyll) also carried the majority of the show on her shoulders admirably. I’m very excited to see them all performing again in the future, hopefully in a play that can give them a better chance to shine.
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