Killing It For Kicks – An Analysis of Jekyll & Hyde The Musical

Jekyll & Hyde The Musical was recently staged in Ballarat for the first time by Ballarat Lyric Theatre Inc, at Wendouree Centre for Performing Arts. In terms of production values and performances, the show really was excellent. A jaw-dropping set, belting vocals and crisp choreography lived up to the hype. And yet, I felt so deeply uncomfortable during the performance that I nearly walked out of the theatre.

Based on the classic story by Robert Louis Stevenson and featuring a thrilling score of pop rock hits from multi-Grammy- and Tony-nominated Frank Wildhorn and double-Oscar- and Grammy-winning Leslie Bricusse, the content of this show is presented as entertainment, but I don’t enjoy watching a woman get raped and murdered, no matter how well she sings.

Jekyll & Hyde has been described as cross between Phantom of The Opera and Sweeney Todd. Unfortunately it combines the worst parts of those stories – the jealous controlling of a woman the protagonist professes to care for, and the protagonist reveling in violence for the sake of it.

It is the very existence of Hyde, allowing Jekyll to be unaccountable for his actions, that made this story so unpalatable. Acutely aware of the harm he is doing, as he lies to his employees, ignores his fiance, and manipulates his trusting friend John, Jekyll is forever held at arm’s length from the horrors his experiment inflicted. The appearance of his alter-ego Hyde effectively makes him a victim of his own violence, instead of being the cause of it, which he most certainly is. Jekyll is never allowed to reconcile his two sides and acknowledge that good people – good men – indeed do evil things.

In Lyric’s production program, the director’s notes made no mention of the social context into which this production was being offered. The story could have been a perfect vehicle for an exploration of the effect of toxic masculinity and what happens when suppression of men’s emotional needs leads to them acting in violent ways. Switch the big gothic Victorian era London laboratory for a suburban Australian shed, and the chemical experiments for a couple of stubbies and suddenly the two faces of Jekyll & Hyde are not so unfamiliar. It is a horror story which many loved ones endure in reality – the two faces of a man who uses substance abuse to mask his anger and an alter ego to take the blame for his negative choices. A man who manipulates those around him by alternately showing his loving and caring side, and the face of his ‘chemical’-fuelled anger.

It’s 2019. There is really no need to see a man killing people or raping women on stage. I know a lot of people like horror as a genre, and this is what Jekyll & Hyde offers, but considering that in Australia, one in six women, and one in 16 men have experienced real-life horror as a victim of sexual assault, the themes are too close to home for many.

I’m not advocating for never telling these types of stories or avoiding all violence completely. On the contrary, I’m interested in seeing stories which explore these topics. But so many of the depictions of violent acts in Jekyll & Hyde did not add to the story or character development, and seemed to be included only for kicks.

For example, in Jekyll & Hyde, the scene where Lucy presented at Jekyll’s rooms for medical treatment and showed the wounds inflicted by Hyde is so subtly effective. We didn’t need to see him inflicting them to understand what he was capable of. We don’t need to witness the rape or watch men being slain to understand that those things are horrific. The sight of bleeding scratch marks down a young woman’s back is horror enough, surely?

The story of Jekyll and Hyde still has merit, it still has things to teach us. However the story must be reframed for the modern context, it must make a social commentary on today’s struggle with the epidemic of violence that infiltrates so many of our lives. If there is not a strong message behind the performance, then it serves to further normalise these behaviours. Leave more to the imagination, be less explicit but more thought provoking. I would have liked to see the complexities of the story and its relevance to the conversation in the age of #MeToo brought centre stage, not hidden within a production that was – to pardon the pun – killing it.

If you or someone you know is experiencing violence or abuse, you can contact 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or through online chat.

Where Is Ballarat’s Professional Theatre Company?

This article was commissioned by the Central Highlands Arts Atlas and first published on 12 February 2019.

Ballarat is a self-proclaimed creative city. We have one of the country’s longest running heritage theatre buildings and a big modern theatre, both of which present a range of professional performances each year. We have a well-regarded tertiary training academy for actors and musical theatre performers. We have three community theatre companies as well as a number of highly successful performing arts schools. We have the annual Royal South Street competitions and we have performing arts creatives working at Sovereign Hill, Kryal Castle and as teachers.

So why don’t we have a professional theatre company?

Late last year, I interviewed a number of local female theatre-makers. When I asked them about the theatre scene in Ballarat – encompassing theatre made by community groups, independent professionals and students – some core narratives emerged. The consensus was that Ballarat has a under-supported independent theatre scene, with equitable access to small-medium sized professionally fitted-out theatre spaces and lack of support for development  and production being major barriers.

The first major barrier to the establishment of a Ballarat based professional company is space.

While hiring a 600-seat theatre is appropriate for the next big community musical, the presentation of drama requires intimate spaces. It is true there are plenty of halls and function spaces that could host a performances, and often do, but the lack of adequate technical equipment and backstage facilities means the production values are low and is inconvenient for the actors and crew.

To hire one of the few professionally fitted spaces in town – owned and operated by educational institutions – are either prohibitively expensive or perpetually unavailable.

This situation forces theatre-makers to hire sub-standard spaces which in turn means sub-standard productions. Hire fees are not cheap, and so spaces are used only for the season, limiting time to rehearse in a space or spend time in development of new works.

Which brings us to the second barrier, the investment of money & time.

Creatives are often choosing not to follow through on new theatrical work, because the risk is too high and the effort is not balanced by the return. Creatives who must be not only writers, performers and directors, but also project managers, marketers, publicists, technicians, designers and often funders become burnt out very quickly, preferring to sink their energy into local paying jobs or simply moving away to where there are more opportunities.

Those that do stay and make work just want to get on and put on a show. Most are doing it around a paying day job, and therefore are unable to dedicate the time needed to ensure the work is of high quality. This means that we have a vibrant but low quality independent theatre scene. And that hurts everyone because without high standards, we cannot hope to convince funders of investing, and audiences who are interested to try theatre are not compelled to return.

In order to encourage a higher quality of work, we need to offer creatives time, financial remuneration and peer support. They already have the desire to work and the passion to create theatre, but with all the investment and risk taken upon themselves, it’s easy to choose not to bother.

With a small amount of investment by council, existing venues and professionals in business and arts administration, Ballarat will truly become a creative city.

There are two avenues to establish a professional theatre company in Ballarat. Firstly, we establish our own. We have enough creatives in town with experience and willingness. Many are already doing the work in a self-funded way. Many graduate from university each year and rapidly disappear seeking work. Many are involved in community theatre but are wanting more. Some start-up funding and a space, with some support for administration and strategic planning to ensure the company is sustainable would allow the creatives to do their best work. An example of this in practice is City of Greater Bendigo’s Performance Subsidy Program which offers no-cost hire of a black box theatre  for up to 7 days. This opportunity for subsidised use of professional spaces and staff can be used – and is designed for – the development and presentation of new theatrical works. A similar in-residence program is now being offered by Castlemaine’s Phee Broadway Theatre.

Secondly, we can invite an existing company to move here. Arena Theatre Company, a long-running company making theatre for young people, relocated to Bendigo last year, and has already made an impact on the local theatre industry. The move came after the company lost federal funding and the board developed a strategy to re-develop as a regionally-based theatre company. Supported by local and state government, the company are now the in-residence company in Bendigo’s council run black box theatre The Engine Room. The company collaborates with young people from the Greater Bendigo Region in the research and development of all of their new work, and then premiere that new work locally before touring it nationally and internationally. In March 2019, they are launching a new development lab, in which creative teams from across Australia will join local theatre-makers to develop new works, network, discuss work, speak with presenters who will also attend.

Investment of this kind is essential if we want a thriving independent theatre sector which encourages new talent to remain in our region and if we want to expand offerings to audiences and build audience literacy around what theatre is and can be.

With the new Creative City Strategy from City of Ballarat, and venues like The Lost Ones and Ballaarat Mechanics Institute beginning to partner with performing artists, rather than operating as simply venues for hire, there is hope that we will soon see a flourishing of independent theatre in the region.


Dear Dickheads – an open letter to shut your mouths

I have two children – aged 4 and 2. We exist in the world, just doing our thing, being a parent and being kids. But on an almost daily basis I encounter many people who can only be described as complete dickheads. So I collected our experiences and wrote this letter. If you don’t like sarcasm look away now.

Continue reading

In The Uncomfortable Spotlight – Reflections on Leaders Forum 2017

With only a few weeks until graduation, I have been reflecting on my year in the 2017 Leaders Forum. It’s been intense, inspiring, depressing, and confronting. My place in the program has been thanks to the Hugh Williamson Foundation, with costs covered for a participant from the Arts & Culture sector.  After 8 months of learning, I have more questions about myself and the ways I can be a leader than ever before. The very ground from under me is shaking and I do not like it one little bit.

Continue reading