The Scotsman Sessions #290: Alicia McKenzie

Welcome to the award-winning Scotsman Sessions. With the performing arts sector still impacted by the pandemic, we are commissioning a series of short video performances from artists all around the country and releasing them on scotsman.com, with introductions from our critics. Here, actress Alicia McKenzie performs a scene from Hannah Lavery’s version of The Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde, directed by Amy Liptrot for Pitlochry Festival Theatre, in which a writer, observing Hyde from her window, begins to perceive the horrifying link between the two men

When Robert Louis Stevenson published his story The Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde, in 1885, the idea of the “male gaze” barely existed, or at least had yet to be articulated. In telling the tale of the respectable doctor whose psyche harbours a horrifyingly violent alter ego, Stevenson is a man describing a male-dominated world, with women appearing mainly as servants or victims; and their voices are rarely heard, except when raised in cries of pain.

There is one exception, though, in the shape of the maidservant who, from a high window, witnesses one of Hyde’s most horrific murders, and calls the police to the scene; and it’s characteristic of Hannah Lavery’s new solo adaptation of the story, which played in Pitlochry Festival Theatre’s outdoor amphitheatre earlier this autumn, that in a subtle but forceful shift, she transforms this character, The Woman At The Window, from a simple maidservant (described by Stevenson as “romantically given”) into a woman writer, who in this version of the tale observes all of Mr Hyde’s comings and goings, actively records them, and soon begins to perceive the horrifying link between his presence, and that of the respected Dr Jekyll.

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It’s therefore the audience’s first encounter with The Woman In The Window that has been chosen, by actress Alicia McKenzie and director Amy Liptrott, for this Scotsman Session based on the play. Hannah Lavery’s version of Jekyll And Hyde features several characters, all played by the same performer; they include servants in Jekyll’s house and the houses of his friends, many of whom eventually become victims of Hyde’s terrible violence. The Woman In The Window is the one who claims the right to interpret events for herself, and for her readers; and in that sense, she perhaps represents the writer herself observing this brilliant story of male violence and of men’s denial of it, and reinterpreting it for our time.

Alicia McKenzie

Lavery is currently the Edinburgh City Makar, well known for her writing on the experience of growing up mixed-race in Edinburgh, for her epic poem and solo show Drift, and her Lament For Sheku Bayoh, a choral drama about the shameful death of the 31-year-old father of two in police custody in Kirkcady, which formed part of the 2021 Edinburgh International Festival. McKenzie is a Manchester-based actress who was part of the Pitlochry Ensemble in 2019 and again this year, and has built an impressive reputation for her stage performances in the last decade, particularly across the north of England; Liptrott trained as a harpist and teacher, and is currently one of Pitlochry Festival Theatre’s associate directors.

Together, these three women have created a 21st century version of Stevenson’s great story that deserves a wider audience than it was able to gather in the woods of Pitlochry this autumn; a show that takes a story 140 years old, and – without any obvious updating – makes it part of the world we now inhabit, in which women’s voices increasingly make themselves heard, and men tempted to unleash their inner Mr Hyde are told, even by Police Scotland in a current video, never to play that dangerous game. “Don’t”, says the film, “be that guy”; but the story of Dr Jekyll is about a man who, tragically for others and for himself, was never likely to take that advice.

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