Gothic Performance: Jekyll and Hyde

Posted by Emma McEvoy on May 11, 2011 in Dr Emma McEvoy, Guest Blog tagged with ,

I have been thinking about Gothic performance.  Over the last few years I’ve found myself writing about Gothic theatre, music and architecture, and now I’m working on an essay on walk-abouts, sideshows and circus-related acts for a forthcoming collection on PopGothic.  In relation to this, I’m curious to see the Mexican and Voodoo Gothic area at Glastonbury this year, advertised as the “most twisted circus in town”.

In “The Back of Beyond” we’re promised a “visual feast of Art, Music and Interactive Performance” and a “bizarre bonanza of ghostly Carny folk”.

In these blogs, I intend to focus on performance – both contemporary and 18th century (if my researches at the British Library and Theatre Museum prove fruitful) and I expect there’ll be an emphasis on music too.   I’ll be starting by considering a production of Jekyll and Hyde (a re-staging of the 1997 Broadway show) which I’ve just seen in Southampton and which is still touring. (See http://www.jekyllandhydethemusical.com/)  As the image below shows, advertising for the UK tour is firmly fixed on the figure of Marti Pellow, front man of Wet Wet Wet.  He is the designated crowd-puller for the show and the audience he pulled in Southampton seemed to be about eighty percent middle-aged women (me included).  What follows is not a review or a coherent thesis but a series of comments and responses.

One of the good things about going to see musical theatre is that even if it has the potential to be excruciating you know that it’s never (or hardly ever) going to be boring.  Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables, Jekyll and Hyde – you might writhe at times, but it’s going to be a continual and stimulating assault on the senses and sensibilities.   At one moving moment in this show, I was rocking with suppressed laughter, but I was never bored.

Wildhorn and Bricusse’s Jekyll and Hyde reminded me again how restrained Robert Louis Stevenson’s original is.  In style and in plotting Stevenson is impressively spare – intriguingly so in relation to the crimes of Mr Hyde.  He is particularly reticent about sex and violence.  Jekyll and Hyde by contrast approaches the evils of Hyde with delighted abandon: the second half opens with an exuberant number during which Hyde murders three (or is it four?) people, to excited chorus commentary.  Great fun, particularly as they’re all presented as deserving of their fate because they are all Victorian Hypocrites.

‘Façade’  – Jekyll and Hyde’s Victorian Hypocrites

Jekyll and Hyde’s structural principle is Gothic profusion rather than sinister restraint.  It is a riotous amalgamation of almost all of the most effective and affecting moments from Victorian plots, as well as everything it wanted to borrow from Frederick March’s 1931 film – namely the joint heroine scheme of the virtuous daughter and the victimized prostitute, as well as the associated locales.  It begins with a scene of Jekyll’s father incarcerated in a madhouse, has a corrupt hospital board obstructing Jekyll’s scientific research, and a Jane Eyre interrupted wedding scene, where, in singular fashion, Jekyll is the one who has sufficient reason to declare why the couple should not be joined together.

Jekyll’s wedding – at which he helps his best friend to accidentally kill him

Unfortunately, though very well sung and performed, the music is exceedingly dull – a tribute to eighties power-balladeering at its most dire.  The only relief was in the choral pieces and in some of the recitative.  Wildhorn’s score is astonishingly bland and he seems almost not to have been aware of the musical possibilities opened up by Phantom and Sweeney Todd, for example.  Every time a character sings from the heart the music resorts to the most anonymous of musical theatre idioms.  Virtuous heroines are immediately accompanied by flute and piano and the love duets are like Barbra Streisand numbers.  The show compulsively and recurrently gravitates towards the “Love me for who I am” kind of number, which seemed hilariously inappropriate in the circumstances.  All this had the effect, however, of making me think about how music is conceptualized as Gothic in musical theatre – what styles and what juxtapositions of styles are drawn upon – and this something I want to investigate in a further blog.  (I’m booking myself a ticket to see Phantom’s sequel Love Never Dies for later this week, so I expect I’ll be writing about that here.)

I was surprised how strangely apt Marti Pellow is for this role.  Not only was it refreshing to have a Scottish Jekyll, but the moment Pellow opened his mouth to speak it was clear that he was not musical-theatre trained.  His very lack of over-bright enunciation gave his utterances a curiously repressed air and his soft semi-mumblings served to differentiate him as an outsider, a man of perverted honesty.  And, though you may not easily believe this, especially confronted with this image of him with stage whiskers, which are of course designed to be seen from a distance rather than photographed close-up (and which are NOT used on the main publicity image), Pellow in Jekyll guise was actually visually the most convincing Victorian I’ve seen on stage and kept reminding me of a photo I’ve seen somewhere…

Jekyll with an Utterson who they couldn’t bear to make dry as dust

As the Metro said of the show, it has “sterling production values”.  The costumes and set are rich and well designed; however, compared to Phantom the staging is decidedly unimaginative and this is not merely down to the massive budget available to Andrew Lloyd Webber.  There are no equivalents to Phantom’s great set pieces – crashing chandeliers, boats in caverns, journeys through mirrors – with their strong sense of liminality.  Neither does it have Phantom’s great eye for the uncanny icon – the monkey with the cymbals, for example – though the potion is a most satisfying red.

The transformation consists of Jekyll fluffing his hair out and donning the kind of louche fur-collared cape that the doctor would never have had in his lab.  In general this production is very casual in its attitude to the dynamics of transformation and the discovery of secrets.   When other characters are made aware of the hideous secret no one so much as misses a beat or raises an eyebrow.

That Cape

It sounds like I’m a stickler for some kind of unattainable stage realism.  I’m not.  In fact all this was blithely careless enough to be strangely enjoyable and I might even have been moved when Jekyll swallowed his potion and sang about what physical agony he was in, if only the music had been any good.

All in all I would have said, crap music, good fun – apart from one aspect that sticks in my gullet.  Like Phantom, Jekyll and Hyde has a disturbing and quite nauseating pruriency.  In fact this could be about the only way in which Jekyll and Hyde could be said to surpass Phantom, its pupil in so many other respects.  Phantom flaunts its heroine’s simultaneous attraction and repulsion to its monstrous protagonist and has the young hero rescue the heroine from threatened violation.  In Jekyll and Hyde the prostitute Lucy is raped.  What is more the audience is treated to the sight of a heart-throb Hyde singing an aria during the act: the climax of the song and the sex is the cutting of her throat.  Due to the nature of her work, Lucy is shown as simulating enjoyment and enacting consent and invitation at the same time as demonstrating fear and revulsion.

I have never been a fan of theories about female masochism and Gothic, but in a theatre – public, communal, where you can look round and see tears in eyes, and people standing to give their ovations – it is hard to deny the apparent nature of an audience’s reaction.  And the warmth of the audience response to the rape of Lucy provoked thought.

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