“All human beings, as we meet them, are commingled out of good and evil; and Edward Hyde, alone in the ranks of mankind, was pure evil.”
Robert Louis Stevenson was always fascinated by the double life of William Brodie, (1741-1788), writing a play, Deacon Brodie (1880) about the respectable gentleman, town councillor, cabinet maker, locksmith, but also a deceitful womaniser, drinker, gambler and thief.
‘I had long been trying to write a story on that strong sense of man's double being’, he commented. Suffering from a feverish illness, he awoke from a vivid dream on which he based ‘The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’, published in January 1886 and selling 40,000 copies in six months.
This successful, ‘shilling-thriller’ was soon adapted as a stage play in which Richard Mansfield played both Jekyll and Hyde. So convincing was his performance as an evil monster, that he was even named in the press as a possible suspect for the Jack the Ripper murders.
In this tight, taut adaptation for a solo actor, Gary McNair wisely avoids dramatising the two eponymous roles but follows the three personal narratives by Mr Utterson, Dr Lanyon and Dr Jekyll. Appearing out of the darkness, Forbes Masson walks slowly across the stage towards a microphone, stares out at the audience to confess in a low gruff voice and wry chuckle, “I’m not the good guy.” This is Gabriel Utterson, Jekyll’s lawyer and friend, intellectual, objective, discreet - qualities which make him a reliable narrator.
It’s a gripping start to this Gothic ‘bogey tale’ exploring the hidden duplicitous nature of man. A black box set on a raised platform with just a chair and microphone is bathed in dim lighting like a flickering candle. Utterson, dressed in smart grey waistcoat and jacket, then begins to explain how he became involved in this Strange Case. In a thick tweed overcoat, he re-enacts taking a walk with his cousin, Richard Enfield who points out a particular townhouse door, which is suddenly illuminated in a bright neon frame. It was on this street in the early hours of the morning when Enfield saw a man bump into a young girl, trampling all over her as she screamed in terror; the name of the man was Hyde whose appearance was ‘something downright detestable.’
Utterson is immediately drawn into this murder mystery - “If he be Mr. Hyde . . . I shall be Mr. Seek." With the eagerness and tenacity of Sherlock Holmes, he starts to investigate, using his legal expertise to find evidence from Jekyll’s Will and gather witness statements; with a quick sleight of hand, Masson simply dons a pair of spectacles to portray Dr. Lanyon who reveals his concerns about Jekyll’s unscientific experiments. The plot thickens.
Amidst a swirling pea souper fog, the reverberating beat of the soundscape creates a chilling atmosphere. When Utterson hears of the brutal murder of an MP, one of his clients, like a brief filmic close up, Masson expresses such a distraught look of shock and disbelief when he identifies the murder weapon. Now the dramatic pace heightens in the continued hunt for Hyde and a timely chat with Jekyll. Through simple gesture and mime, Forbes Masson just holds a bowler hat to represent the presence of Jekyll, their conversation switching on and off the microphone to denote change of voice. A sharply focussed, electrifying scene.
Stevenson’s literary technique of ‘Show, don’t tell’ has been neatly transferred by McNair from page to stage - we envisage the characters through actions, thoughts and emotional feelings, rather than factual description. With just a hunch of the shoulder, simple prop or mannerism, Masson slickly and seamlessly adopts a few character roles in an instant; original text is refreshed with modern Scottish colloquial patter, to add a spark of his legendary comedic talent.
Whether prowling the stage like a trapped animal in a cage or perched on the edge of the chair, this is a man lost in serious contemplation. Masson fully embraces the complex personality of Utterston, ‘whose rugged countenance never lighted a smile; cold, dusty, dreary and yet somehow lovable.’ The audience is completely immersed in every detail of his horrific, supernatural tale, sharing his thoughts, suspicions and fears as he pursues the truth behind these murders most foul. But is he to be trusted as he reminds us later, ‘I’m not the good guy.’
While Utterson’s dramatic monologue takes us scene by scene through the slimmed down narrative of the novella, it might be a tad confusing for those who don’t know the characters and plotline.
The intimate stage setting, soft lamplight, shimmering shadows and eerie music is brilliantly reminiscent of a vintage black and white murder mystery movie. We visualise the secretive world of Jekyll behind a closed door and the apparition of Hyde who haunts the London streets by night due to a masterclass performance by Forbes Masson in the imaginative art of classic storytelling.
13 – 27 January, 2024. Evenings, 7.30pm. Matinees, Wed and Sat. 2.30pm
Ticket prices from £14
Age guidance, 12+
Note: The performance lasts 75 minutes with no interval. Strobe & flashing lights.
Perth theatre, 31 January – 3 February, 2024
Dundee Rep, 7 – 10 February, 2024
MacRobert Centre, Stirling, 15 – 17 February, 2024