Kevin MacNeil: A Method Actor’s Guide To Jekyll And Hyde (Polygon)
13 Sep 2010
Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic provides the foundation for a modern twist on the dark side of man.
The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson has cast rather a long shadow over Scottish literature since its publication in 1886. The iconic novella on the duality of human nature is undoubtedly a classic piece of work, and its relevance has never diminished.
Each generation of new Scottish writers has tried putting its own slant on the story, reinventing and revitalising it, but few can have done so with quite as much joie de vivre as Kevin MacNeil does here.
MacNeil is a poet and novelist whose last book, The Stornoway Way, was a brilliant and idiosyncratic black comedy set on Lewis, the Hebridean island of the author’s upbringing. A Method Actor’s Guide to Jekyll and Hyde is both a step up in ambition and a move towards more mainstream territory, and it combines a poet’s linguistic precision and playfulness with a penchant for slapstick, and moments of real profundity. The book opens with aspiring young actor Robert Lewis (the similarity to Stevenson’s name is, of course, no coincidence) cycling across Edinburgh, on his way to rehearsals for a forthcoming show. It’s the first lead part Lewis has landed, or rather two lead parts, because he is to play both Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in a stage adaptation of Stevenson’s book.
This opening segment does a brilliant job of setting the scene, combining Lewis’s thoughts on his life so far with his observations on the city he calls home. MacNeil doesn’t hang about in establishing his themes (opening line: “I’m in two minds.”) and is a keen observer of both the everyday stuff of life and the darker undercurrents that run beneath.
Lewis never makes it to that rehearsal, as he is side-swiped by a car and suffers serious injuries. Upon awakening from a coma, he finds that the world has tilted slightly on its axis, and things aren’t quite how he remembers them.
For a start, in his absence, a new actor has been brought into the cast of the show, Justin Wolfe, who seems to be a rival not only for Lewis’s parts, but also for the attentions of Juliette, the female lead for whom Lewis has feelings. Still in agony and loaded up with painkillers, Lewis struggles to hold on to reality, and unravels in eventually spectacular fashion. MacNeil has a lot of fun with Lewis’s degeneration, and is never too obvious about parallels between his book and Stevenson’s. Through a ridiculous yet still believable chain of events, Lewis finds himself impersonating a famous film actor at a party held by Wolfe, only for the real actor to turn up and expose him. MacNeil pitches Lewis’s self- delusion perfectly and the entire passage reminded me in an odd (but very good) way of PG Wodehouse in his prime.
At the end of the party, Lewis gets another knock to the head, this time courtesy of a couple of heavy-handed bouncers, and the book takes off into altogether darker territory. Lewis, like Jekyll when he transforms into Hyde, loses all sense of social propriety and descends into a baser, more animalistic kind of person, finally losing all grasp on reality and endangering himself and others.
There are at least a couple more major twists in a beautifully constructed plot, but to reveal them here would be to do both MacNeil and his readers a huge disservice. He is a very clever writer, but he wears that intelligence lightly, never hammering the reader over the head with it. There is a lot of perceptive insight in A Method Actor’s Guide, from the playful mockery of the acting profession and the identity issues at the heart of earning a living by pretending to be other people, to a rather sideways look at Zen Buddhism.
But for all the big ideas, clever wordplay and subtle themes, A Method Actor’s Guide remains a wonderful romp of a book, a funny, irreverent and moving 21st-century look at human nature, and an intriguing rewiring of a classic.