Although the story is set in London, there’s always a sense that the landscape of Victorian Edinburgh is somehow implicated in Robert Louis Stevenson’s great 1886 novella, The Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde; something to do with the story’s fierce Calvinist tension between grand houses and stinking vennels, do-goodery and hypocrisy, the strict suppression of matters sexual, and a thriving underworld of prostitution and sexual violence.
Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde, King’s Theatre, Edinburgh ***
Richard III, Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow ****
Art, Theatre Royal, Glasgow ****
And for Edinburgh theatre-goers, there’s certainly plenty to enjoy in this touring production from the Rose Theatre, Kingston There’s an eloquent two-level set by Simon Higlett, capturing the thundering urban development and social change of the railway age; there’s David Edgar’s interesting 1996 stage version, which introduces a trio of female characters to reflect on the all-male world of Stevenson’s story. And there’s a terrific soundscape by Richard Hammarton, full of dramatic echoes of an age with a tempestuous inner life.
There are problems for Kate Saxon’s production, though, when it comes to the central character. Played by Phil Daniels without any recourse to elaborate make-up or costume, this double portrayal of a split personality begins in reasonably credible style with a middle-class, Scottish-accented Jekyll chatting to his sister, attractively played by Polly Frame; but when he takes on the character of Hyde, he rapidly descends into a jokey and sometimes incomprehensible version of the sort of cod-Glaswegian beloved of London-based producers in search of a quick, cliched representation of menacing thuggery and brutalism.
Add the additional absurdity of a portrayal in which Jekyll and Hyde are clearly the same person, and yet absolutely no-one except Grace Hogg-Robinson’s spirited housemaid Annie recognises them as such, makes for a second half in which the play becomes less and less credible; and that despite the basic strength of the story and adaptation, and the sheer effort and industry of Phil Daniels, and the whole nine-strong cast.
The idea that evil contains an element of appealing, reductive jokery is not new, of course. It goes back to mediaeval morality plays, and beyond; and it has been widely explored in recent productions of Shakespeare’s Richard III, which often bring the experience of modern stand-up comedy to bear on Richard’s extraordinary, complicit relationship with the audience.
Emily Carding’s remarkable version of Richard III takes that idea to its logical conclusion by transforming the play entirely into a one-hour solo show, in which all the other characters are represented by members of the audience. Sometimes, the designated member of the audience has to stand up, pour a drink, even place the crown on Richard’s head; but mostly, they simply end up wearing post-it notes signalling that like most of those who had dealings with Shakespeare’s Richard, they are now dead.
It’s an approach that speaks volumes about how little agency other characters in this play have, and how its action revolves entirely around its wily protagonist; and although it is slightly more successful in the play’s conspiratorial early stages than at its conscience-riven conclusion, it still makes space for an extraordinary performance from Emily Carding, a female Richard as bitter, damaged, ingenious and irresistible as any I’ve ever seen.
The Theatre Royal, meanwhile, receives a rousing visit from the latest touring version of Matthew Warchus’s great original production of Yasmina Reza’s Art, now 22 years old.
Art is famously a play that contains no real villains, but only three middle-aged men kindly and wittily observed, as their 25-year friendship threatens to fall apart when one of them, Serge, spends a huge amount of money on an abstract painting featuring a blank white canvas with a few faint diagonal lines.
The play’s notorious slipperiness about its own opinion of the painting’s value perhaps prevents it from achieving greatness; but it remains a superb and beautifully structured portrait of midlife crisis, 80 minutes of pure, perfectly-crafted wit and insight.
And Nigel Havers as Serge, Denis Lawson as his appalled friend Marc and Stephen Tompkinson as the tearful Yvan, give it such a deft and perfectly-pitched performance that it becomes irresistible; so much so that it’s hard to imagine a better cast in this iconic 90s play about the middle-aged male ego and the lengths it will go to to protect itself when it feels threatened by change.