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Edinburgh Fringe: Gilbert&Sullivan; Jekyll&Hyde

I am not going to play the "poor student" record again -- as long as you all keep in mind that just because something is a cliché, that does not necessarily mean it is not true. I did have money for two shows. The first, I did not choose. Rebekah sent me a text asking me whether I wanted a ticket and not having looked at the programme yet, I decided to go with it. This was the ticket for HMS Pinafore, and I must admit that my idea of Gilbert and Sullivan has been a very fuzzy and tenuous one.

Gilbert&Sullivan is of course a British institution, and I know it is old and I know it has taken the journey from tacky pop culture to something resembling a classic. I also know (or rather remember whenever people tell me) that they are the people behind The Pirates of Penzance; but I also always have to be told that Penzance is in England, not in some exotic corner of the world -- my brain does not always work quite as it should.

At any rate, I arrived at the venue not quite knowing what to expect. We had not had an overly auspicious beginning to the evening: we arrived early at the venue and found a rather seedy café which claimed to have wine for sale, but it turned out this "wine" was a Blossom Hill rosé, and I decided I had not gone that far towards alcoholism yet; then we discovered that while we had huddled on plastic chairs among white walls and orange lights, the queue for the show had been steadily growing outside. When we finally got inside we ended up sitting very high up in the theatre. It was terribly hot and stuffy.

I always have a period at the beginning of a play where I find it utterly impossible to "suspend disbelief", as they say. I sit there thinking about how it feels to stand on stage; it may be a side effect of a decade or so of amateur acting -- thankfully I also have an overactive imagination, and the two cancel each other out nicely. Just as my brain was tuning in, however, a woman in the audience collapsed (probably because it was so hot and stuffy); the lights came back on and the actors were left standing in the positions they had assumed, only no longer in character. This played merry havoc with my mind, of course.

Once it was established that the woman would be all right and we all had time to settle back in again, however, it turned out to be quite a marvelous performance. It had a deliciously playful attitude to the conventions of the Savoy opera form: careful choreography, bobbing up and down and walking in the most intricate circles. I found myself wondering, at times, how much was Gilbert&Sullivan and how much some genius interpreter.

The story is quite simple (I do not put spoiler warnings on works older than anyone alive today): The sailor Ralph is secretly in love with his Captain's daughter, Josephine, whose father intends her to marry the First Lord of the Admiralty; Josephine, however, is secretly in love with Ralph (something she is herself not too happy about). The Captain, on his side, nurtures secret feelings for a miss Buttercup, who again secretly returns these feelings (can you see where this is going?). The First Lord of the Admiralty (Sir Joseph) arrives (with his entourage/chorus of sisters, cousins and aunts) to ask for Josephine's hand, but while there encourages the sailors to think themselves the equals of their superiors (say, the Captain) -- thereby removing the only thing that has kept Ralph from declaring his feelings. When he does, and is refused (as no one has told Josephine that sailors are the equals of captains (and/or Cabinet ministers)), he attempts to kill himself but is halted by Josephine's admitting that she loves him, too.

The two resolve to run away and get married. In the meantime Sir Joseph gives another speech, declaring love to be the Great Leveler cutting across social positions (interpreted in one vein by him, another by Josephine). When the couple's plans to get married are unmasked, however, the hypocrisy shines through and the Captain and Sir Joseph (who have thus far been full of praise for the high position of the British sailor) resolve to punish Ralph. At this moment (of course) Buttercup reveals that when she nursed Ralph and the Captain, she accidentally switched the babies and that it is Ralph, not the Captain, who is of high birth. This leads to an immediate change in their positions (the Captain becomes a sailor; Ralph becomes a Captain) and Ralph and Josephine are allowed to marry. Another couple is made in the former Captain and Buttercup. Left is only Sir Joseph, who is promptly matched with one of his cousins (at least, we hope she was a cousin, not a sister or an aunt). If you can get past the slight ick factor of
1. Josephine marrying a man her father's age (albeit much younger looking)
2. The former Captain marrying the woman who nursed him and
3. Marrying your cousin
(all of which, with the possible exception of the second, were more or less normal at the time), it is a very happy ending indeed.

And they did it marvelously. It is impossible to take Gilbert&Sullivan entirely seriously (I think it was never intended to be), and the production seemed to have the necessary archness without entirely letting go of the melodramatic quality that lets you actually care about the happy ending. I found I was most engrossed in the happiness of poor Sir Joseph, however -- he was so fabulous in so many ways, much thanks to Samuel J. Taunton whose stage presence was amazing.

We did not learn that the show was supposed to raise money for a charity until it was all over, but I will say you rarely get that particular brand of bubbly happiness from charity. Tim, Ben and Johanna sang snatches of the songs all the way to the next show. We tried to stop them.

The next show, The Scandalous Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, a midnight show we had decided on when the Bouncy Castle Dracula turned out to be sold out. I had considered it earlier in the week (mainly because I thought the flyer looked cool; but I also have this thing for Stevenson -- he scared me silly when I was a kid, and I never got over it), but decided that I was planning to see too many shows. Suffice to say, I was glad to catch it; even if it meant running across town in 20 minutes and creep around in scary back alleys with Ben itching to scare me.

The venue was just under George IV Bridge (for those out of the loop, Edinburgh is a city on two levels, one of which I consider decidedly safer and less creepy than the other; guess which) -- a play on Jekyll&Hyde could never take place on the surface.

The concept was brilliant: three actors, six roles; it highlighted the duality concept wonderfully. It also had the side effect of allowing the actors to show that they really were brilliant, too. It is at times difficult to distinguish a bad role from a bad actor. I would for example have said that the actor who played Elizabeth was rather better than the one giving us Heather -- if they were not the same person. Similarly, it seemed that Utterson was a rather complex character that was not explored sufficiently; but Lanyon, played by the same actor, was perfectly fleshed out even if there was clearly less material there. Neither Jekyll or Hyde had much depth, but that is understandable, I suppose. There was no lacking energy, certainly.

I find it hard to explain exactly why the duality of the characters was so brilliant. It is not merely the illustration of the theme of doubleness, of two in one; it is that, too, but it goes deeper. Allow me to stop gushing for a moment and look more closely at it.

Elizabeth (Jekyll's wife, who for the life of me I cannot remember from the book) is the proper, competent, but Victorian, wife; Heather (the maid, who also strikes me as a new invention) is rather more characterised by sexuality. This much is clear more or less from the outset. As the story progresses, however, we find an Elizabeth whose propriety slips, leading her to have an "affair" (is it an affair when you have sex with your husband's other personality?) with Mr Hyde; Heather, meanwhile, shows great loyalty to Mr Hyde, belying our earlier impression of her.

The duality of Utterson and Lanyon is of a different type. They both function as alternatives (more or less healthy) to the Jekyll/Hyde clear cut division: Lanyon as the fully integrated individual, functioning well in society and at any time the perfect gentleman seemingly effortlessly channelling feeling when needed, but never excessively; Utterson, on the other hand, is clearly battling his demons every minute of every day -- a heavily religious man, he is desperate to not lose, but simultaneously strangely attracted to the figure of Hyde. Roh suggested he was a repressed homosexual, and I have no doubt that is the best reading (it explains his obsession with Hyde wonderfully). It was never clearly stated, however; all in all the figure of Utterson was presented to the audience with holes ready to be filled at our leisure. I cannot decide whether I think this is good or bad.

In the good tradition of Calcuttagutta, I have sampled the reactions of my fellow audience members, asking them what they thought of the production, and the consensus would appear to be that while the script had some serious problems at times, the concept and actors were excellent. The script used at times quite archaic language, giving the feel of Stevenson -- language which may perhaps work better in a novel than on stage. Attempts had been made at jolting this language with various versions of "fuck" and "cunt", but I am told by my test-group that the result was glaring artificiality. I confess I did not notice this at the time: I had gotten over the initial distance and was completely engrossed throughout.


This is the final of the three Fringe articles; I hope to write more next year. I believe that the conclusion to it all must be that the Festival is well worth attending, and that money will get you somewhat more quality than lack of money; but even the pecuniarily challenged can have a wonderful time (even if it is only laughing at, rather than with, people).


Tor,  11.09.08 19:58

I am increasingly bitter because I didn't attend the festival (or parts thereof). However, I promise once again to make amends next year, because of real vacation and all that.

I will also make a mental note that theatre performances are more likely to be good than stand up comedy. In fact, I read an article in today's issue of The Guardian, where comedians were interviewed about rudeness to members of the audience, and this seems not to be an uncommon occurence.

Roh,  11.09.08 21:49

I read the Elizabeth-Heather thing slightly differently from you.

I forget who it was who said that - my apologies, I am going to go Feminist on you - that men tend to build their territories upon the bodies of women. Soldiers rape the natives, kings take defeated king's daughters into their harems or give them to their sons, the tribe that wins gets to kill their male foes and take their women, etc. And while I am not going to go into detail about the evils of menfolk these days, since things are obviously not quite the same anymore (!), an while it is not in point of fact the only way that men mark territory, and since while I am not going to go into the implications of men = civilization and women = objects to own that mark status, I think that the principle can be applied, somewhat, here.

I'd agree: Elizabeth is all stiff and proper, while Heather was lower class and in servitude. And I'm not sure about you but that made me not like Elizabeth as much, and like Heather a little better. For me it was a personality thing: Elizabeth was stiff and disapproving, Heather was easy. All the time. And we are in Britain, so it would have been a class issue too, I am speculating, that made E less likable than H, since they both played to their class. So when E gave in to Hyde, who is just the primal id to her husband's superego, partially that was a moment when we get to go, Ooh, lookit E, she has fallen off the track of virtue, where's Madam Prim and Proper now?

But another thing happens then, yes? Until Jekyll began taking his formula, Hyde was part of Jekyll. Supressed and restrained, yes, but Jekyll knew that was part of himself, and took the potion/chemical thingy to get him out, so that all the parts of him could be free. Until Jekyll took the thingy, E was married to him, and to Hyde within him. The scene where Hyde seduced E read to me as one of familiarity. Hyde wanted E because E had, until recently, been his as much as Jekyll's, and by Hyde's standards she still was. E didn't randomly show disloyalty to her husband - in that scene, she gave in to a sexual pull she couldn't quite comprehend, and later stayed away from. It was being Prim and Proper that helped her with that later distance.

Much later, though, Heather is not quite thrilled with Hyde. In those final moments, even before Hyde lets lose completely, she is afraid of him, and in those final moments, she rejects him. And given what he is, that cannot be anything but a rejection of ALL of him.

Elizabeth doesn't ever reject the remnants of Jekyll. She stays by his side, and this after she knows the entire story. Elizabeth is the woman who knows both men - take that how you will, hur hur - and Elizabeth chooses Jekyll.

Of the two men, I know which I would call the winner.

(Elizabeth also consistently defies Utterson, who is also one of the losers in this little debacle. Elizabeth is the one who ensures Lanyon's interferance. She is the only woman with important points of contact with every man in the play.)

Also, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde has an established history of being read as a gay text, which is why the Utterson-as-attracted-by-Hyde's-extreme-masculinity was appealing to me. It sort of meant that Hyde could be the ultra male heterosexual he was and we could still have the reading apply at some point, in some aspect.

People have this bad habit of assuming that swearing is a modern, as in, contemporary phenomenon. But it must be admitted that when our actors said "fuck" and "cunt", they said it in contemporary intonation, and not the heavy periodicity they otherwise employed. And so.

I want it on record forever that I did not like the play, and the murder scenes were funny and not shocking. Also, Jekyll and Hyde spat up blood a lot, and it was never convincing.


Camilla,  12.10.08 18:50

Because long comments are good and it is wrong of me to not respond to long and well thought out comments when I keep demanding long and well thought out comments -- I shall make amends with good wine and salty licorice.

I found myself preferring Elizabeth to Heather, actually. Which is interesting. But then I have always leaned towards prim and proper. As to your understanding of the seduction scene, I agree entirely. In retrospect I see that I had not included it in the article, but there is no doubt that you are right.

Which of the two men would you call the winner?

Also. I really did not know that it had a history of being read as a gay text. Nobody tells me anything. Well, you do, but only 10 years after I should have known things.

I want it on record that I did like the show and generally was convinced. But I am easily swayed by theatre.

Also: comments are good. Good comments are even better. And long, good comments are the best.