Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is certainly a novel reflecting the gendered norms of its time – with barely a single female character in sight, any mention of a Bechdel Test would be laughable. Women are only featured as victims or passive figures in the wake of Hyde's rampages across London – one of his first acts upon transforming is to trample on a small girl. The imbalance is corrected in Evan Placey's bold reimagining of the text, presented by the National Youth Theatre company as part of their West End rep season. Here, the female characters take centre stage.
It would be wrong to ruin the surprises that unfurl throughout the play, but suffice it to say that this is certainly a radical adaptation. We begin with what seems to be a sequel to the original piece, based on the life of one Harriet Jekyll keen to investigate her husband's findings, though this is merely a starting position. Placey mingles narratives and time periods, grabbing influences from the likes of Martin McDonagh's Pillowman, Jennifer Haley's The Nether or even Headlong's Faustus. Modernity bleeds through into the Victorian world, and audience assumptions are slowly turned on their heads. It is an intense, exciting piece of work and a bold step forward for the writer, whose previous work includes Consensual, also with the NYT.
All is deftly overseen by director Roy Alexander Weise, who jumps between the various narratives with ease. The use of movement is particularly effective, and Weise knows when not to flood the stage with his large cast, capable of quickly turning tranquillity into anarchy. There are flashes of ingenuity here too – the use of handheld projectors (allowing any surface to become a screen, with the actors dictating the placement) creating a versatile set aided by the rotating flats from designer Laura Hopkins.
The NYT cast of largely untested performers acquit themselves admirably, navigating a multitude of character and costume changes. Elizabeth McCafferty’s Jekyll, very much the beating heart of the first act, creates a staunch protagonist more than riled by the deeply patriarchal system she is trapped in, while, in another world, Jennifer Walser’s Florence is an understated, entirely believable 18 year-old. It all holds together nicely. There are some fantastic scene-stealing moments, not least from Mohammed Mansaray’s priest, who has the physicality and erotic dance moves capable of pulling off one of the show’s funniest and perhaps most surreal, moments.
When the show lulls the energy drops, especially in some protracted romantic episodes between Jekyll and the detective-turned-confidante Gabriel Utterson. But in the end, this is Placey’s triumph through and through. There’s a neat little message here, and in our own internet-obsessed world, online persona does not match up with public appearance. In a way, we all have the same personality splits that obsessed Stevenson all those decades ago.
Jekyll and Hyde runs at the Ambassadors Theatre in rep with the NYT performance of Othello until 6 December.