Hope Dickson Leach on The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde
Hope Dickson Leach is adapting Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde into an innovative theatrical live screen experience at Leith Theatre, which will also become a new feature film. The Edinburgh-based filmmaker tells us more
Hope Dickson Leach looks chilly. I can barely see her behind her thick-rimmed spectacles, chunky yellow scarf and scarlet woolly hat as she calls in over Zoom from Leith Theatre, where she is preparing to mount an innovative new production of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. “I've got three heaters going in my room,” she says. “I have a diffuser to do nice smells, but also to pretend that there's some kind of heat – it's like the same way you look at a candle and think, ‘Oh, I'm warmer.’”
Theatre isn’t necessarily the first thing that comes to mind when you think of this Edinburgh-based writer-director. She’s best known for The Levelling, her quietly devastating debut feature following a young woman returning to her father’s farm after a series of tragic events (floods, dead livestock, dead family members), and her award-winning short films. But she’s no novice to the theatre racket. “When I was 17, I was in the National Youth Theatre of Great Britain, in the design department,” the 46-year-old tells us. “So I made sets. We had these tiny budgets, so we even had to make our own glue from boiled rabbit bones and disgusting things like that. It was really teaching us how to make something from nothing, which was amazing.”
It certainly sounds like it was a good foundation for the creative arts, given the number of famous faces who emerged from the programme along with Dickson Leach. “Oh it was hysterical the people who were in my group,” she says. “Chiwetel Ejiofor was in it, and Simon Farnaby… all these kind of amazing actors who sort of became famous.” She pauses, perhaps tellingly. “And Matt Lucas was part of it too, extraordinarily.”
That was back in 1993. She then went on to Edinburgh University to study philosophy but ended up embroiled with the theatre kids there as a stage manager and set designer. “I just loved that exciting thing of making something live,” she says of that experience at university. “And when I was at film school, I directed one play in this tiny improv venue. And it was sort of terrifying because you can't walk on stage and scream ‘Cut! Redo that. Do this,’ you know? But it’s also fantastic for that very same reason. And your notes to the actor become different because you have to be like, ‘Off you go. It's yours. You can do it.’ So I've always loved theatre. But there are no cameras, you know? And as a filmmaker, I want to make beautiful images as well.”
Dickson Leach gets to have her cake and eat it with The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. This promises to be a unique retelling of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic tale, blending both stage and cinema techniques to create what’s been described as an innovative “filmic and theatrical experience”. The project came about following Dickson Leach’s involvement with the National Theatre of Scotland’s Ghost Light, a kind of poetic highlights reel that evokes moments from Scottish theatrical performances past, present and future. It was one of the brightest spots of Edinburgh International Festival 2020, which was forced to be an online-only event thanks to COVID-19. Jackie Wylie, NTS’s artistic director, was keen to work with Dickson Leach again following its success.
“We had such a great time on Ghost Light, and Jackie said, ‘Is there something else? Something which is formerly challenging, or innovative? Is there a piece of text or some Scottish writing you wanted to explore?’” After going off for a bit of a think, Hope Leach plumped for Stevenson’s study of the dichotomy of man and one of the defining texts of ‘the Caledonian antisyzygy’ – the concept of duelling polarities within one entity. This of course sounds the perfect source text for a hybrid production straddling two art forms, but this only occurred to Dickson Leach after the fact.
“Yes, the idea that you've got two faces is rather perfect for a hybrid, but that wasn't the reason we chose it,” she tells us. “I was just drawn to the idea of investigating toxic masculinity and exploring the potential connection between toxic masculinity and power. It felt not only like something I'm really interested in asking questions about, but also really contemporary.” While the ideas at work in the text are as fresh as ever, Dickson Leach hasn’t been tempted to drag the setting into the 21st century. “If it's really contemporary and powerful, and engaging on that level, then you don't have to set it anywhere else. You can do the real thing.”
By 'the real thing', Dickson Leach isn’t just referring to the book’s Victorian setting. Most movie adaptations of …Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – there have been well over 100 – focus in on the novel’s horror elements, taking it to a darker, more graphic, more violent realm than on the page. In most versions, the focus becomes Dr Henry Jekyll and his feral alter-ego, Mr Hyde. In Stevenson’s original, however, we instead follow the tenacious lawyer Gabriel John Utterson, who’s interested in uncovering what the brutish Hyde's connection is to this respectable, mild-mannered doctor.
“In a formal dramatic sense, I guess Jekyll is the main character as it’s he who undergoes this kind of evolution," says Dickson Leach. "But you’re right, he's not the protagonist if you read the book. It's that fantastic thing of Victorian literature where the person whose point of view we're in isn't as interesting as what they're showing us, and doesn't have to evolve. That is Utterson.”
Rather than straight horror, it sounds like Dickson Leach’s adaptation will be closer to the genre of Stevenson’s book; namely, a proto-detective novel. “When I read it as someone who loves crime stories, I was like, ‘This is the first serial killer book. This is the first detective.’ I mean, it was written, I think, a year before Conan Doyle’s first Sherlock Holmes story. So genuinely it is the first Scottish/British detective story. And I love that idea – of Utterson being a detective who’s up against the clock as he tries to figure this out, before whatever happens.”
While the period setting is the same in Dickson Leach’s production, the location is not. The book takes place in the fog-covered streets of Victorian London, but here the action has been moved to Stevenson’s hometown. Although Dickson Leach reckons the author would have approved. “If you read it, those streets Stevenson describes are clearly not Soho at all; it's clearly Edinburgh.”
One thing I’m having a tough time getting my head around during our chat is what Dickson Leach’s production will actually look like. Leith Theatre is an appropriately atmospheric arena in which to set this gothic tale, but the three performances are also going to be beamed simultaneously to cinemas around the UK. “It is really complicated,” admit Dickson Leach. “For a long time it was so clear to me but it was really hard for everyone else.”
She assures me that it won’t be confusing for audience members, however. For those who have been lucky enough to snap up a ticket (the live shows are currently sold out but there may be some tickets released nearer to the time), you will enter Leith Theatre ahead of the show to take a peek at all the nooks and crannies where the performance will take place. “There are rooms all throughout the building, like this one I’m in now, that will be Utterson's living room, and behind the stage, there’s an office, so there's kind of all these different spaces. But no one will be able to see the stage because there'll be a big screen on it.”
Capturing the action will be six cameras while a vision mixer will also be on-site essentially live editing what the audience sees. “So the audience will walk through the sets, and then sit down, then be given headphones, and they will essentially watch a film. But the film is live!”
All this is beginning to sound a bit like those special seat-of-your-pants episodes of ER or Coronation Street that were shot and broadcast live, like they used to do for old soaps and sitcoms. “Exactly,” laughs Dickson Leach. “It's like a live multi-camera sitcom. But, you know, with pretensions.”
There is a third wrinkle to the project. As well as being broadcast live, each performance of the play will be recorded and become the raw footage from which will emerge a film, which will be released in the autumn of next year. “We'll be using all that material: we'll have three nights’ worth of live performance and we'll also be recording some of the rehearsals as well.”
How different will this feature film be from the live experience, we wonder? “What’s great about that – and this is what theatre does as well – when you do it in front of an audience the reaction can sometimes be, that wasn't as powerful as I wanted. Maybe we need to change something. So there'll be decisions that we've been making live on the night that might be changed when we come to cut it. But then we can edit it together the right way and it'll be beautiful and it will be a feature film, and it will go out there and have a whole new life.”
The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde, Leith Theatre, 25-27 Feb, returns only
The Strange Case... will be broadcast live to cinemas in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dundee, Aberdeen and across the UK, 27 Feb, 7pm; encore screenings w/c 28 Feb, with the feature version broadcast on Sky Arts next Autumn
Hope Dickson Leach Filmography
Ghost Light (2020), Strong Is Better Than Angry (2019), The Levelling (2016), Silly Girl (2016), Morning Echo (2010), Parliamo Glasgow (2009), The Dawn Chorus (2007), Cavities (2004)