You may think you know the story of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde front to back, but an ambitious new adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s 19th-century novel leaps off the pages and into a physical set at Leith Theatre. The National Theatre of Scotland’s immersive production will also roam cinemas across the country as broadcast live theatre, before finally settling into a neatly edited feature film format next year.

Hope Dickson Leach

Its director, Hope Dickson Leach, is no stranger to working with different film forms. She grew up in Hong Kong, studied filmmaking in New York and is now based in Scotland, and her CV is just as varied, including work in live theatre as well as the 2016 feature film The Levelling. 

Her first collaboration with National Theatre of Scotland dates back to the short Wedding Night in 2011, and in 2020 she directed Ghost Light as a celebration of theatre on film. This new production of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde finds her working on her biggest scale to date, both in terms of the concept and technicality.

We met up with her to ask about what promises to be a journey through dimensions.

For the audience who will watch the show in cinemas, could you describe what the immersive part at Leith Theatre will look like?

On arrival, the audience will walk in the same space as the cast through sets, as you would in an immersive theatre. What’s different with this production is that they then see the actors on the screen. You watch the making of a film at the same time as watching the resulting film. Apart from the main character, no one else is in every scene, so the audience will see the crew crossing the auditorium, actors doing quick changes and cameras moving from one set to another.

Leith Theatre
© Jared Bruce

And there’s this extra experience of seeing a place you know of. It’s like when you watch a movie that’s set in New York or in London, and you go, “Oh, I know that place.” Your own experience changes your view on the film. So as you watch the live play-outs and how it unfolds on the screen, you are aware of what it took to get it there, the artificiality of it is exacerbated. It’s real and fake at the same time, which is also the case for Jekyll and Hyde. 

This production moves between several disciplines – the pages of a novel, a physical set, live broadcast cinema and an edited film; as well as between the Victorian period and now. It feels like a journey through multiple dimensions.

Leith Theatre
© Jared Bruce

One of the things that the audience and artists alike have become better at is being agile in the way we experience stories. You might watch a film and then you go online to play a game version of it – we move between one form to another in lots of different ways as the technology develops. And this is something that’s always existed in film. We adapted to the introduction of sound, colour, widescreen, etc.

As artists we produce arts that play on preconceptions, and make us ask questions about the experience we are having. When Psycho (1960) first came out, Hitchcock put a notice in the paper along the lines of, “Please don’t tell anyone the ending.” And that just started this massive excitement around it, that there’s going to be something big, and so people queued around the block to see this thing. That’s marketing. But with a story like Jekyll and Hyde, people already know what happens so the reveal can’t be the draw. So I wanted to stage an experience on a level we haven’t thought of yet.

The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (2022)
© Henry Home

I always remember one of my film school teachers explaining how one would show someone flying from one place to another: you’d see someone go to the airport, a plane going up in the sky, a picture of a map and then the plane landing. So even then our brains worked in a very different way. Now we just do a cut between the locations and we understand the cinematic storytelling. And challenging the expectations becomes more complex when you take into account what people already know about the theme or the form.

There have been immersive productions that use this individual cinematic memory audiences have, including completely aural ones.

Yeah. Sound is half the movie. I did a radio play a couple of years ago, a series called Unmade Movies on Radio 4, where film directors adapted a play. I’d be sitting there with the audio editor, going, “Now, I want more of a break here,” or “This is a wide shot, so we need to be further away from the mics.” And it was totally cinematic. We don’t always need cameras.

It’s an interesting idea, one avant-garde filmmakers have explored from a long time ago, the concept of relying on our imagination. Similarly, you can do it by pulling out sound. In The Levelling, there were scenes where I just dropped sounds completely and we only had the picture. It can put you emotionally closer to the character, or make your imagination fill in the gaps.

The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (2022)
© Henry Home

In this production we’ve got incredible actors, and there are some scenes where we are not cutting anything and only using one camera because they can play out a full scene. And that ‘liveness’ really adds to the theatricality of the experience, the understanding that you are going to see it one way tonight but tomorrow it might be shot in a different way.

That’s what makes it hybrid. It’s not just cinema, and it’s not just the theatre. It’s finding ways in which the two collide and interact.

To pull off this hybrid performance, was there something you were looking for in the actors?

Alison Peebles
© Henry Home

Every actor we’ve cast has experience in both theatre and film – that was something really important, because we wanted actors to be able to respond to a camera but also be able to sustain a whole performance throughout an evening. I was committed to keeping the theatricality alive. Why shouldn’t they be loud or big-gestured? That doesn’t stop it from being real. With these big performances, whether it’s Al Pacino or 1940s film noir with very dramatic lights and shadows, there are big moments but also small delicate moments.

Rather than trying to micromanage each movement and every moment, I learned to step back and enable the actors to own it instead. I don’t think the theatricality will take away from the final film. It’ll just be the language of that film.

Can you tell us about your collaboration with electronic musician Hudson Mohawke for the soundtrack?

Well, it’s not going to be a dance or electronic score at all! I’m really inspired by soundtracks – for example, The Third Man (1949) or Vangelis for Chariots of Fire (1981) – where you’ve got very specific sounds that aren’t orchestral. We think of period movies as all having big orchestral scores, and it’s just not true. When you look at the score for Witness (1985), it’s so strange, but because it speaks directly to the story and it’s part of setting the overall tone, you go with it. This is what Hudson Mohawke and I have been talking about. He’s so bold in the way he uses sounds, and with this, he allowed his ears to find some sounds that really told the story.

The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (2022)
© Henry Home

In any creative medium, it’s when a hybrid collision or collaboration happens that really interesting things emerge.

Absolutely. Take hybrid documentaries, for example. With all these different forms we’re exploring now, I say we embrace it, don’t be frightened. I hope people love this production, but it is a big, brave, creative project. And I feel like we just have to swing with it and go with it and give it the power that it should have. But it is also scary because it’s like the first cut of the show. It’s not as if we’ve practised it with a small regional audience and now we’re bringing it to Broadway, or it’s been reviewed and we’ve recut it based on the notes. This is, bang, the first time anyone’s going to have seen it, and the first time we’re going to have done it. So we’re going to learn a lot from it in terms of how we put the final film together. But hopefully the live experience will be thrilling enough that any imperfections will be forgiven as “okay, that’s part of it being live.”

The live screening is happening at the end of February, and the feature film is set to come out in 2023. So there’s some gap in time between the two. What could the audience who go to see the live cinema look forward to seeing in the final film version?

I think it’ll be quite interesting for people to watch the live version and then watch the finished feature film, and see what differences we’ve made, because then they’re witnessing the mechanism of how films are shot and the role of post production.

The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is live at Leith Theatre from 25 to 27 February 2022, and in cinemas across the country from 27 February.