Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde review – the acclaimed Dorian Gray team take on another classic

The scene loves a mystery. Swirling fog from hand-held machines, a row of lamplights carving out a city street, a villain lurking in the shadows. The Roslyn Packer Theater is a portrait of the night and all its promises and perils; a carefully curated backdrop for a classic story.

Director Kip Williams is known for using aesthetic designations such as both prop and portal, using live and pre-recorded video feeds to elevate theatrics, suggesting other worlds on largely bare stages.

Using these techniques, he created a dazzling tour-de-force in The Picture of Dorian Gray, which starred Eryn Jean Norvill as all 26 characters across multiple screens, and which will soon tour to Broadway and the West End.

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Now Williams and his collaborators on that work – including designer Marg Horwell, lighting designer Nick Schlieper (in his 100th show for the Sydney Theater Company), composer Clemence Williams, and crucially, video designer David Bergman – have returned to Victorian England to explode another short story about duplicity, duality and a touch of horror: Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, by Robert Louis Stevenson.

There are two actors this time, who exchange passages from the short story told in the third person (Dorian Gray also prioritized this kind of reading, rather than a more traditional adaptation). Ewen Leslie—the rock-solid actor’s actor whose entire face seems to reshape itself around an emotion—takes on Jekyll and Hyde (as well as other minor roles); and Matthew Backer plays Gabriel John Utterson, whose hands—often shown in close-ups on screens—and startling candor are the steady heart of the show. The pair act out scenes as they narrate them.

The text is about who we are in public and how much that can differ from our true, private selves – and in many ways this production is made to honor Bergman’s design: camera operators weave across the stage, while the video crew conspires with the audience to show what happens in the shadows, behind screens or hidden against walls. The cameras and screens move across the stage, guiding us through the play and beckoning us closer.

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With a noir-like black-and-white camera feed, and with Schlieper’s lights reveling in the shadows, the play embraces the mystical elements of the original story: Utterson is confused by the apparent connection behind the brutal Edward Hyde, who has been terrorizing London, and his friend Henry Jekyll, a well-respected doctor. He fears that Jekyll has been intimidated and blackmailed.

Jekyll and Hyde are, of course, the same man – the monstrous Hyde persona that is the result of an experiment gone tragically wrong.

Audiences know the twist before the play begins (it’s a story so ubiquitous that a second musical stage adaptation opened in Sydney this month), but this production treats the mystery as sincere and sets the stakes high, with Clemence Williams’ taut score and Backer and Leslie’s mounting panic ; we spend most of the play not quite seeing Hyde’s true face.

But there is a density to this production that makes it leaden; a flurry of text that lands awkwardly, and becomes boring from overload. It is difficult to find clarity in scenes so packed with language, and the actors speak quickly, urgently and in a rhythm so synchronized that it is as overwhelming as it is impressive. Fortunately, Backer’s steadfast Utterson holds us together as his elegance gives way to horror and despair.

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The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde feels a bit too well-worn territory for Williams; when Hyde descends into the depravity of Victorian vice behind closed doors, the driving club beat and glitzy hedonism could be straight out of Dorian Gray. Still, the moment is a welcome relief, and the opening-night crowd — fresh from a briefly halted show due to an audience medical emergency — clung to it with cheers of joy and applause.

It is the beginning of the end of the play, and here Williams and Bergman’s austerity and restraint begin to collapse, to make way for revelations. The book’s final chapter—Henry Jekyll’s Full Statement of the Case—is written in the first person, and as the play switches to the “I” pronoun and Leslie takes ownership of the story, the remaining twenty minutes are all the richer for it: our The attachment to the actors become more personal and present.

It also helps that this is where the screens drop away at key moments and we can look directly at the actors. In the end, Jekyll and Utterson meet on a bare stage, on a bench, as Jekyll’s confession stretches towards its harshest truths. (He holds an additional prop that is not worth destroying but haunts the intimate tableau). Jekyll puts his head in Utterson’s lap, and Backer is remarkable here: he looks at Jekyll, the friend he knows he has lost forever, hands hanging in the air: does he put them in his hair and know the full extent of his experiments and crimes? Does he offer comfort? The moment of decision is agonizing and deeply human.

And then the narrative style slips further, into the second person, as Utterson tells Jekyll’s story to him – finally acknowledging that Hyde’s and Jekyll’s actions were linked: “you did this”, “you heard me say this”. This conceit is William’s own, and it is clever: it connects us with Utterson’s grief.

It comes too late, but the ringing sensation of finally meeting the actors’ eyes might just get you over the line. Finally, beyond the impressive choreography of camera work and inventive framing, after a flurry of words and an arrangement of shadows, the human side of the story lands in the chest. In the end, this story hurts.

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