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.