Perhaps the most enduring Scottish story is Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. It not only taps into our primal fears of good and evil, but asks questions of society’s changing values and examines the pressure on the individual to fulfil the accompanying expectations. It also touches upon that Scottish stereotype of perceived division, both in terms of nation and the individuals who reside there, but surely such claims mean little in today’s Scotland, or at least no more than anywhere else.
The most recent screen appearances of Jekyll and Hyde include 2007’s Jekyll, BBC’s modern day take on the myth starring James Nesbitt, and two American film versions in 2006 and 2008 respectively. The former is a teen drama populated by people who just failed the audition for GLEE, and the latter stars Dougray Scott and Tom Skerritt and is misogynistic tosh. In a far more fitting setting ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ have appeared as part of Allan Moore’s graphic novel series following the exploits of the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and now Stevenson’s tale is the inspiration behind Kevin MacNeil’s latest novel A Method Actor’s Guide to Jekyll and Hyde.
MacNeil is perhaps best known for The Stornoway Way, his 2006 debut novel, which if you haven’t read I suggest you rectify that situation as soon as possible (you can get it on Amazon for 1 new pence + p&p). It is a fantastic novel that deals with an area of Scotland and its culture often overlooked in modern Scottish art, but is part of a rich tradition of the literature of the Highlands and Islands. If you want a modern Scottish novel that is different but still recognisable I can think of few better.
But I’ll talk about The Stornoway Way another time. A Method Actor’s Guide to Jekyll &Hyde is a book, in keeping with Stevenson’s original text, that never lets the reader settle. It starts with a literal bang, and everything that follows is a little off. And you’re not sure why. It’s one of those books that you have to read parts over again to try and make better sense of what you have just taken in. It is not until the final quarter that this all makes sense, and it is testament to MacNeil’s skill that he manages to tell a story that is believable but also unsettling, both psychologically and literally. I have to admit that some of the earlier occurrences in the novel were unbelievable at first, but not outrageously so, just enough for me to believe that this book was poorly written. I was wrong.
It is a difficult book to talk about without spoiling it for others, so I’ll avoid mentioning too many specifics. MacNeil writes a realistic internal dialogue for the central character Robert, a man whose mind is a mess, a situation which the author sets up in this opening line ‘I’m in two minds’. After being involved in an accident Robert is determined not to lose his acting roles, and his girlfriend, to his nemesis Wolfe. It appears that he is psychotic in his paranoia, which is perhaps understandable, at least to the reader. What follows is a distinctly Freudian examination of the Id, Ego and Super-Ego, and the power of the mind for self-deception. What MacNeil manages to convey so well is a sense of not knowing what to believe; of having your expectations challenged, and that applies to the reader as well as Robert.
A Method Actor’s Guide to Jekyll &Hyde is, in the end, a terrific read. One that I was sad to finish. I went back to key passages to see what clues I could find in the novel that I had missed first time round. Even as I write this I know I’m going to read it again, and soon, and that is a very rare occurrence these days. This is a psychological thriller, that is not particularly thrilling but is far more psychological than I originally gave it credit for.
It is concerned with the masks that we all wear, the roles that we play. The distinct difference between how others perceive us and how we perceive ourselves. Kevin MacNeil understands that all the world is a stage, and he can empathise with the fragile psychological state of the players. In the original tale Henry Jekyll wanted to try and rid himself of his more base thoughts and desires. Stevenson knew that we are reliant on our consciousness and personal morality to stop us from becoming Hyde. MacNeil suggests that such an attempt is futile, and that the best we can hope for is to be able to keep our darker urges at bay. If, for some reason we can’t control our Hyde side, then all hell may break loose.
Since it’s Halloween this weekend I’ll leave you with a clip from my favourite big screen version of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, the 1932 film featuring an amazing double performance from Frederich March in the title role(s):
Don’t have nightmares.