Interview: David Edgar on adapting Jekyll & Hyde

Interview: David Edgar on adapting Jekyll & Hyde

6 December 2017

"If we don’t understand our potential for wickedness, then our goodness can become puritanical, heartless and cruel. This is what happens to Jekyll." Playwright David Edgar on adapting Robert Louis Stevenson's gothic novel for the stage. Interview by Jenny Cameron.

David Edgar’s adaptation of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde was first staged by the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Barbican Theatre, London in November 1991. He subsequently re-worked the adaptation in 1996, and it is this updated adaptation that the Touring Consortium Theatre Company is producing in Spring 2018.

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

How did you go about adapting this novel for the stage? Which elements of the novel did you keep, leave out or change, and why?
The novel has a complicated, Chinese box structure: the story is told largely from the point of view of the lawyer Mr Utterson, who plays the role of the detective, and then the same story is told from Jekyll’s point of view. I decided to make it chronological. I saw and read about many of the film, television and theatre adaptations, many of which give Jekyll a fiancé (often with a father for Hyde to murder). This seemed to depart from the spirit of the original, in which Jekyll is a bachelor, living in a strangely empty London, in an exclusively masculine world (there are no named women in the story at all). Unlike the novel, drama proceeds by contrast, so I decided to give Jekyll a widowed sister, living with her children in an idyllic countryside, the opposite of Jekyll’s London life, but also suggesting that there was another life he might have lived. I then had the idea that the sister’s maid could decide to come to London, join Jekyll’s household, and become a victim of Hyde’s attentions.

Finally, I read a marvellous book by the philosopher Mary Midgley (Wickedness), which argues that evil, far from being separate from good, is the other side of the same coin. Evil is thus a lack rather than a presence. I think that’s true, and I dramatized that by making Jekyll-without-Hyde – in his way – as monstrous as Hyde-without-Jekyll. If we don’t understand our potential for wickedness, then our goodness can become puritanical, heartless and cruel. This is what happens to Jekyll.


This version is a 1996 update of your 1991 adaptation. How much changed between the two versions, and why did you make the changes? One of the most significant changes is that in the first version, two actors played the characters of Jekyll and Hyde, and in the later version, one actor played both. Why did you make this change?
The original idea was to dramatize the two halves of a single personality, by splitting the central character into two (as happens in the story). The big advantage was that I could have scenes in which the two sides of the man could argue and struggle. Despite having two marvellous actors playing Jekyll and Hyde, it was clear in performance that this didn’t really work. However much, in theory, you were seeing two sides of one man, in practice you were looking at two men arguing in a laboratory. Some years after the original RSC version, the director of the Birmingham Repertory Theatre, asked me if there was anything I’d like to write or revise for his main stage. I said I’d love to have another crack at Jekyll, with a single actor. Happily, he agreed to present that. Another opportunity which this provided was to give Jekyll’s sister Katherine, a more prominent – and heroic – role in the climactic scene of the play, which I was very pleased with. 


What do you feel are the biggest challenges your script poses for directors and actors?
There are two obvious challenges. One is that in the design: there are quite a lot of tricks (like the trick when what you think is Hyde attacking a child turns out to be Jekyll’s niece and nephew putting on a play) which are hard to bring off. There are three settings that require a lot of detail (Jekyll’s hall, the laboratory and the sister’s house); both of the English productions have had a revolving stage, but there’ve been very successful productions in America and Scotland which have found other solutions. The second big challenge is for the Jekyll actor, changing into Hyde before our very eyes. I didn’t want the proverbial drop behind the sofa to stick on bushy eyebrows, but to rely on the actor’s skill, and bodily changes, to make us imagine the change we were seeing. The first Jekyll in the new version was David Scofield, who’d done the same thing in a play about the Elephant Man, and did it brilliantly. 


I particularly love the way you use storytelling and narration in the script, for example in the opening scene. Why did you choose to use this technique? 
I used narration in Nicholas Nickleby a lot. In Jekyll I don’t have “neutral” narration; every piece of narration is delivered by a character, who is describing his or her own actions. I wanted to use narration, particularly at the start, to remind audiences that they are watching an adaptation of a novel.


As a playwright, do you have any input or say in the way a production ends up?
In the past, playwrights had very little impact on how a play was produced, and were often excluded from rehearsals. In the 1970s and 80s, I was involved in negotiating a set of agreements with theatre managements which gave playwrights the right to of approval of the choice of director, cast, and creative team (designers, choreographers etc), and the right to attend rehearsals, whether the director wanted them there or not. There is also a right to be paid for attending some rehearsals, which I think is important, because it shows that the playwright has a job in the rehearsal room, beyond just protecting their baby. I like to see designs early on (the set is almost always designed before rehearsals, so it can be built), to hear the music before it’s nailed down, and to rewrite during rehearsals. Inevitably, you have to be tactful (not demanding the final performance at the beginning, not saying things to actors which contradict the director), and I think it’s good to leave them to it in the middle of rehearsals. Then you come back when the actors are running the play, and you can see big things that the director might have missed. That’s also true during preview performances, when the director is often concentrating on technical aspects of the production.

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde opens at  Rose Theatre, Kingston, where it plays from 9 to 17 February 2018. It then tours to Aberdeen, Malvern, Dartford, Nottingham, Blackpool, Wycombe, Edinburgh, Bradford, Wolverhampton, Cambridge and Darlington.

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