With the titles Jekyll&Hyde and Nerve, when I bought tickets for Reverend Production’s double-bill at Oxford’s Old Fire Station I was expecting two plays filled with pathos. I imagined Romantic-style pathetic dichotomies between good and evil, which would enrapture the audience. Instead, these plays presented a much more contemporary take on Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic novel, conveying how painfully our external circumstances can affect our daily lives.
The performance started with Jekyll&Hyde, which took place far from the gothic, romantic environment of Stevenson’s story. The first scene opened in the apartment of a surgeon called Ellie (surname Jekyll, hence Dr. Jekyll, played by Charlie Howitt), helping Abigail (Hyde, played here by Kate Novak) to recover from a debilitating fall. From the outset characters were shown as regular human beings – such as through jokes about how uncanny the name ‘Jekyll’ is for a doctor.
In alluding to Stevenson’s polarised conflict between good and evil, this production asks whether such a clear distinction can really be made. Especially in the face of misfortune, we lose the ability to act as best as we can and, unfortunately, our actions have real and painful consequences. Ellie does not embody pure evil. She makes a questionable moral decision, which leads to a young girl dying during surgery. Nonetheless, the audience was led to understand her circumstances, and to sympathise with the sheer amount of pressure she was under. Not only does she have a lot of responsibility as a surgeon, but she is also caring for her sick brother, who is losing his ability to move. One of the strongest performances in the play came from Jack Govan, playing Ellie’s brother, painting an extraordinarily realistic picture of a sick and grumpy man who is difficult to live with, but has no bad intentions.
Ellie and Abigail become very close friends, and Abigail proves to be a key cornerstone of support for Ellie as she tries to continue her life in spite of her circumstances. Although the sexual attraction between both managed to add emotion to the play, in some moments I had the feeling it was too obviously stated, and that it would have been better to transmit ambiguous sexual innuendo, and let the audience imagine the rest.
Nerve, the second play of the performance, also built on the same theme of conflicted individuals, whose actions are as much consequences of their circumstances as their personality. Once again, the characters are not heroes who face grandiose challenges, but rather average individuals caught in life’s maelstrom.
Danny (Lee Comley) has just moved in with Sam (Kate Novak), his old friend from school. Tess (Charlie Howitt), who is approaching her twenty-fourth week of pregnancy, often visits them, as does Greg (Jack Govan), a neighbour and local policeman. At the beginning of the play the audience can grasp how anxious and stressed all characters are: Danny and Sam have to cope with their drug-dealer neighbour, who is not only a criminal, but — more importantly — he’s always playing outrageously loud music. Tess is trying her best to become a perfect mother, so quits smoking and drinking. Her perfectionism soon becomes an obsession, overwhelming her with doubts and insecurity. Greg is desperate to become closer to his ex-wife, and as a consequence tends to neglect his job. Hence when their drug-dealer neighbour is murdered, none of them are able to cope with the situation, and their lives begin to unravel.
This is an exciting premise full of potential, but as with Jekyll&Hyde, in general the characters stated their emotions too overtly. In trying to portray regular human beings, the characters ended up being a bit too plain, and I found it difficult to relate to what they were supposedly feeling. An exception was Greg: despite him never speaking to his ex-wife on stage, one could easily imagine what was going between on them by observing Greg’s mannerisms and how he spoke.
In both plays, a contemporary setting was used throughout the performance, from costumes to sound design (even including the white noise of a TV-program in some scenes in the background). Hence the environment was very similar to that of a sit-com, in which the audience gets a voyeuristic insight into the lives of the characters. However, this overt realism was sometimes counterproductive. Any production that opts for a hyper-real setting risks losing its impact by being neither close enough to, nor far away from, the reality that it attempts to convey. As an example, the sex scene in Nerve, despite being intended to portray an intense, emotional atmosphere, ended up being unconvincing as it tried to maintain both realism and decorum. Most captivating were the brief moments in which Sam’s internal monologue was spoken out loud as a voice-over, which had a far greater emotive impact than the more realistic scenes.
In the way these plays were staged, the performance seemed to underestimate the differences between a TV-show and a theatre piece: it wouldn’t take much to adjust the script to TV where it might even work better. On the stage, I felt that the ideas about the worldliness of human experience underlying the play would have been better communicated by challenging a realistic framework, and focusing on creating the right atmosphere and symbolic universe. Plays such as Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and short stories such as Kafka’s Transformation also underscore the worldliness of man without needing to create an illusion of reality – indeed, one could argue, they achieve their goal because they do not use it.
The best of Jekyll&Hyde and Nerve was their effort to portray the concept of moral luck and how this manifests itself in everyday existence. We might have good intentions, but too often our day-to-day life becomes unbearably stressful, and the actions we take in such circumstances might have immoral consequences. By portraying how things can go terribly wrong against our will, the performance asks the ever-relevant question: to what extent can we judge people’s behaviour by their intentions?