NEWS: Jekyll & Hyde, Bristol Old Vic Theatre School

Jekyll & Hyde is the latest production from the future stars at Bristol’s Old Vic Theatre School. After last week’s big screen horror showcase, Nathan Hardie talks to the group bringing the genre alive on stage.

Words: Nathan Hardie, @hardiewrites

Images: Craig Fuller, @craigfullerphotography

Since Robert Louis Stevenson wrote the horror Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in 1886, the story has become a mainstay staple in popular culture.

Adaptations across each medium revolve around the novella’s general premise of a lawyer investigating the crimes of Edward Hyde, which appear inextricably linked to his good friend Dr Henry Jekyll. So famous is the multiple-personality twist that it enters anti-spoiler territory, similar to The Sixth Sense

Being ever-present, yet lacking originality, has reduced the character to cameo appearances in other spooky properties: Scooby Doo, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Tom Cruise’s The Mummy, and countless others.So, how do storytellers revitalise such a famous 19th-century tale? After interviewing third-year students at Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, they may have found the solution with their newest production: Jekyll and Hyde.

Director Jaïrus Obayomi and writer Evan Placey have shifted the perspective to focus on the recently widowed Hattie Jekyll, who has taken over her late husband’s scientific endeavours. As she delves deeper through experiments and research, mysterious forces affect her perceptions. Intrusive voices claiming to originate from the 21st century push Hattie to question everything about herself and the world she inhabits.

Radical change from its source material inspiration is apparent from the characters alone. Instead of the original text’s upper-class, middle-aged white men ensemble, Hafsah Godsil leads a wide-ranging diverse cast. Their focus is not to erase previous iterations but to reimagine them, as Godsil shares.

“This [production] will be able to stand alone. It’s quite exciting that the way Evan has written the script gives you the viewpoint from a female’s side, which, at the time, was overlooked”. 

Feminist perspectives are crucial to many of the play’s themes. For example, one of Martha Maloney’s roles is Lucy, the owner of a bar in Soho where sex workers operate. In other Victorian stories, namely retellings of Jack The Ripper, they reduce prostitutes to victims without agency or backstory. 

“It’s about taking the power back,” Maloney explains. Through the support of Obayomi and intimacy coordinator Clare Fox, she describes portraying this character “as the first time playing a role that is sexualised, but I don’t feel sexualised myself. It’s incredibly liberating.” 

Title/ caption. Image: Name of photographer, @IGhandle

Creating such a safe space has allowed further exploration into other sensitive topics, like policing and race. Alongside Thomas Donnan’s DCI Renford, Tumi Olufawo wrangles her identity with the character DC Williams. Hesitant when first receiving the part, Olufawo felt that “over time, as well as research, I could understand better why Black people join the police.” 

Since surveying these motivations, she’s felt this has strengthened her dynamic with Arabella Smith-James, who, as Florence Monroe, DC Williams interrogates. “It has been interesting with us both being black women. So, it’s one approach of ‘you’re a traitor’ against the thought process of trying to make the other side better.”

Obayomi’s approach to pushing Jekyll and Hyde’s boundaries also confronts traditional theatre norms. If the test of playing several characters in different periods isn’t enough, the performance will take place in a theatre-in-the-round setting.

Therefore, the audience encircles the performers, so there’s no room for actors to hide and pose crew members behind the scenes, like stage manager Elsa Gear, quite a task. “With no backstage area, we’re exploring how to get props on and off and where to do costume changes. It’s all a big challenge and a very full-on process to prepare, but it’s exciting once the set looks awesome!”

Godsil, too, is looking forward to the task. “There’s something quite filling and supportive having people all around. It immerses the audience and, in my opinion, creates a more enjoyable experience.”

Altogether, the Jekyll and Hyde production represents an ambitious task, tackling thought-provoking themes in a distinctive setting. For some of the more staunch supporters of the original story who may be initially resistant, embrace this message from Olufawo: “Come with an open mind, don’t have any expectations, be ready to be shocked, and enjoy!”

Jekyll & Hyde will be at Tobacco Factory Theatres from November 4th – 11th. Tickets are available here

Nathan Hardie is our film & theatre writer and is also developing a career as a film critic and scriptwriter. Find out more about Nathan and the projects he’s been working on here.

Craig Fuller specialises in photography for theatre & opera. For more information, please visit his website