Roslyn Packer Theatre, August 10


How to depict the splintering of a psyche, not just into two, but into endless multiples of two – into all the fractured souls that lie between Henry Jekyll and Edward Hyde? That is the conundrum director Kip Williams sought to solve in his follow-up piece of “cine-theatre” after the astounding artistic success of STC’s The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Matthew Backer and Ewen Leslie. Photos: Daniel Boud.

The cine-theatre idea is to make theatre out of the process of filming that piece of theatre, with live video of real-time acting mashed with images of pre-recorded acting. Yes, there’s a degree to which supping from a similar cup a second time is not quite as seductive the first, but Williams and his brilliant design and technical team have tailored their approach to the distinctive aspects of Robert Louis Stevenson’s story (adapted by Williams), bringing film-noir sensibilities to the narrative’s gothic horror and melodrama, most obviously with the filmed action presented in black and white. It is the interaction between the multiple moving screens that especially catches Stevenson’s tone however. The images of the actors are teased and jangled, so part of a head – say just the chin – is on one screen, while the mouth nose and eyes appear on another. It’s an extraordinarily effective device for encapsulating and communicating internal worlds of mental dysfunction and emotional decay.

Those states must first be made extant by the actors, of course, and what Ewen Leslie and Matthew Backer achieve in this regard is startling. The latter mainly plays Utterson, the story’s narrator and commentator, a role which Williams has elevated from shadowy passivity into being our eyes, ears, touch and raised heartbeat as events unfold. Were Backer’s reactions more exaggerated, the work’s inherent melodrama would swiftly become dominant, and the audience would titter rather being transfixed. Indeed, there is occasional laughter, but it comes as a reaction of wonderment to the mind-boggling virtuosity of the production itself; a virtuosity that manages to keep replenishing itself.

Ewen Leslie and Matthew Backer. Photos: Daniel Boud.

Leslie is magnificent. His Jekyll is torn and tormented, his Hyde a recipe for insomnia. As with Backer’s, it’s a performance that could so easily slip beyond a tipping point, yet never does. However manic he becomes, we sit spellbound. Leslie’s versatile voice and rubbery face also make for utterly distinctive characters in Poole, Jekyll’s butler, and a copper aiding Utterson in what becomes more of a detective tale than the original, neatly dovetailing with the lighting’s plunging, noirish shadows.

Williams has kept much of the prose and dialogue intact, so we can relish such classic Stevenson lines as a minion being described as “having a face smoothed by hypocrisy”. He also sustains the tension, even through the challenge of Jekyll’s long, final letter. His collaborators, meanwhile, (reassembled from the Dorian production) match his ideas at every turn, from Clemence Williams’ music (including some string quartet writing that would wake your cat), through Marg Horwell’s design, Nick Schlieper’s lighting, Michael Toisuta’s sound design and David Bergman’s video design, to the army of technicians expertly bringing it all to life. For most of this performance the lip-synch was out. Perhaps this was another way of discombobulating us, although I suspect it was a glitch that must be remedied. About 20 minutes from the end, a medical emergency in the audience was handled with the utmost professionalism by all involved. Our best wishes to the patient.

In many ways the production is like the potion that Jekyll drinks. Dare to partake?

Until September 3.