Friday, 20 February 2015

Jo Clifford and Morna Pearson - Two Very Different Jekyll and Hydes

When the Sell A Door theatre company's touring production of Jo Clifford's futuristic take on Robert Louis Stevenson's 1886 novella, Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde opens in Livingston tonight, theatre regulars could be forgiven for doing a double take at the schedules. Clifford's version, after all, arrives just a month before another new version, this time by Morna Pearson, appears in a production by the Lung Ha's company in association with Drake Music Scotland.

Both playwrights take radical but very different approaches to Stevenson's classic split personality tale, which has seeped into mass consciousness by way of numerous interpretations of the story on stage, film, radio and television. Where Clifford has reimagined the story in an oppressive futurescape where Dr Jekyll is recast as a high-flying cancer specialist testing a new drug, Pearson has kept her version in a Victorian locale, but has chosen to relocated it to Edinburgh. Here she focuses on young Miriam Jekyll, a rebellious young woman trying to break free from her family's refined New Town restraints.

“Setting it in Edinburgh makes it feel like home in a way,” Pearson explains of her approach to the story. “The backdrop of the city is quite theatrical, which is part of why I've kept it in Victorian times as well. That allowed me to explore some of the ideas and scenes in the novel through a Victorian girl in the middle of childhood and womanhood, and the overnight change that occurs. She's in the middle of being conditioned into what she's told a woman should be, and the play looks at how overwhelming that can be for her and how she has no outlets to express herself anymore, and that's where Hyde comes in.

“There's a lot going on inside the family, and everyone's got a secret to hide, but Miriam finds a big appeal in the Old Town, where people are allowed to express themselves and be more honest and open.”

Clifford originally thought her version too would be set in Victorian times, but his characters begged to differ.

“They wouldn't speak to me from that period,” she says. “They were speaking to me from a time a little bit in the future or maybe in an alternate universe, in which all the most reactionary elements that are happening in our world today had somehow gained the ascendency.

“Women's rights have been set back. Homosexuality has been recriminalised. The libel laws have been changed so you can't get prosecutions of figures like Jimmy Saville, and capital punishment has been reintroduced. So in some ways it's hi-tech, but in other ways it's quite a derelict and distressing society.

Stevenson's story was originally inspired by Deacon Brodie, whose double life as a burgler, gambler and womaniser seemed to sum up the dichotomy between Edinburgh's respectable veneer and the dark underbelly beneath. Such hypocrisy is even more pronounced today, as Clifford points out.

“We live in a society in which people are really encouraged to detach themselves from their actions,” she says. “So Tony Blair can order a war that's illegal, and can still have the position of a middle eastern peace envoy. David Cameron can preside over an unbelievably cruel and vindictive government, and still call himself a Christian. It's as if it's somebody else is doing all the bad things while they remain good people, and it's as if Stevenson saw this.”

Pearson too recognises the universal modernity of the story.

“I suppose everybody identifies with it in some way,” she says. “There are examples of Jekyll and Hyde everyday on the news, with all these men in suits being hauled up in court. One of the reasons I was drawn to making it about a young woman was to do with the conflicting and confusing messages that are put out about what it means to be a woman and an adult.

In terms of explorations of duality, both Clifford and Pearson's dramas come in part from very personal places. As a transgender woman, Clifford talks about how as a man she had to keep her female side hidden “in a box, and the more you try and hide something away,” she says, “the more it wants to come out.”

A rare moment of liberation came in a late night viewing of the Hammer studio's 1971 big screen sexploitation feature, Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde. Apart from throwing all its Victorian myths into one basket by having Jekyll hire Burke and Hare while Hyde is recast as Jack the Ripper, Brian Clemens and Albert Fennell's script had Jekyll transform into a female Hyde.

“That was an extraordinary moment for me,” Clifford says. “I remember watching it on TV very secretly very late at night, and it kind of expressed so many of my feelings at the time of being transgendered.”

For Pearson, any sense of liberation comes through the writing itself.

”If anyone saw any of my plays they might think I was quite wild and confident,” she says, “when outwith my writing I'm really quite shy, but I can say and do things on a stage which I'd never dream of doing in my real life.”

Pearson has has tried to avoid most other versions of Jekyll and Hyde.

“I've seen a couple of films,” she says, “and they seem to focus on the abuse of women. A lot of entertainment today seems to be about the abuse of women, so mine tries to take things in a completely different direction.”

Much of the tone of Pearson's piece looks set to be expressed in Caitlin Skinner's production by crucial contributions from Drake Music, as well as choreography by artistic director of Curious Seed, Christine Devaney.

“The darkness of the story is probably what drew me to it,” Pearson says, “but there's comedy there as well. It's quite irreverent, and I wouldn't claim to be faithful to the original, more inspired by it.”

Clifford similarly isn't shying away from the story's larger than life elements.

“To see that transformation is such a theatrical pleasure,” she says, “and I really wanted to give the audiences that, but I also want to scare people. I hope my play is frightening and shocking in places, but also that it's funny, tender and compassionate, with a little glimmer of hope at the end.”

Jekyll and Hyde, Howden Park Centre, Livingston, tonight, Perth Concert Hall, tomorrow, Brunton Theatre, Musselburgh, Thursday, Eastwood Park Theatre, Giffnock, Friday, Beacon Arts Centre, Greenock, Saturday. The Strange Case of Jekyll and Hyde, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, March 19-21, Dundee Rep, March 25.



The Herald, February 17th 2015
 
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