Review By Lisa Lanzi
Two exceptional actors, Ewen Leslie taking on all the roles apart from that of his offsider Matthew Backer, framed by a bleak film noir atmosphere and all delivered at a cracking pace leaves the viewer breathless. Such is the density of the spoken text in Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde that, should your attention waiver for a moment, you have to concentrate to pick up the thread once again; and I quite favour having an audience work at being present.
If you saw director Kip Williams’ The Picture of Dorian Gray, the use of cinematic techniques will not come as a surprise in his adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 novella. The high definition close ups and brilliant, creative vision-mixing was thrilling as was the ‘choreography’ of the projection screens as they were floated around and through space and arranged strategically during the entire show. From one screen, they multiplied to six by the end of the nearly two hour work casting fantastic split images of Jekyll’s face as his personality and sanity shattered by degrees.
Alongside the two actors, a swarm of black-clad camera operators worked to deliver the images and angles required by video designer David Bergman. At times the performers and cameras were not even visible to the audience except on screen while elsewhere all elements were visible. Sometimes the actors stepped out of ‘frame’ to address their words to the audience and still other screen moments combined pre-recorded footage with real time performance in mind-bending ways. As admiring as I am of the technical prowess and brilliance of Williams’ concepts, I am not sure I want to experience the mix of live and cinematic each time they present a new work. I am still enamoured of theatrical magic and the power of live performance and long to see more daring exploration purely in that arena.
One moment of genius that had the audience gasping in appreciation was the staircase scenes. The focus shifted perfectly from the live actors beginning the climb on a prop stair to the on-screen action at the completion. The transition here appeared effortless though I am sure was the result of much technical wizardry, coordination and practice. A difference that stood out for me comparing this work with the earlier The Picture of Dorian Gray was the colour palette and textural details. Mostly presented in black and white, there were minimal colour inclusions.
When these did occur it was an atmospheric and poetic contrast: the yellow glow of the Victorian era streetlights that glided into place on a strong diagonal with ‘fog’ being disseminated via a ‘blower’ as a technician walked across stage, a door the colour of dried blood within a monotone, timeworn and textured wall. Colour also comes into play with an explosion of absurdity during the drug-taking scene, akin to an LSD trip, or perhaps an opium induced haze which would be more typical of the period.
The work would not have succeeded without the commitment and virtuosity of performers Matthew Backer and Ewen Leslie. With mostly impeccable English accents coached by Charmain Gradwell these two delivered strong characters who came to life both in the reality of the stage space and on screen. Both actors imbued all roles with detailed emotion, considered physicality, and candidly conveyed emotion; not an easy ask when these qualities need to ‘read’ both on stage and on screen.
As lawyer and narrator Gabriel Utterson, who is also Dr Jekyll’s long-time friend, a nuanced, consistent delivery from Matthew Backer gives the perfect example of the Stella Adler maxim: “Acting is reacting”. Backer is hypnotic as his character journeys through the mystery of the narrative toward the unsettling conclusion.
Ewen Leslie, in masterful and awe-inspiring form, morphs from one character to the next with alarming speed: Dr Jekyll, various servants, police officer, an MP, another doctor, and of course, Mr Hyde. Each of these characters has a distinct vocal intonation and differing physicality and the performer’s excellent diction is always at the fore. Leslie flawlessly holds space for them all with fast changes and I imagine, very complicated stage blocking. It is indeed a marathon acting challenge but Leslie is entirely present, definitely spell-binding, and simply marvellous.
This hybrid stage work is exhilarating to witness and Kip Williams and his creative team will certainly be remembered for their unique contribution to the world of re-imagined theatre.