Ewen Leslie was walking with his six-year-old son, Elliot, when the child cocked a squint at his father and asked disbelievingly: “You’re going to work?”
It was mid-June, and Leslie, 42, was about to start rehearsals for a bold new production of Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. In fact, Leslie had returned to the stage six months earlier – after an absence of six years – to wield an iPhone and laurel crown in the Sydney Theatre Company’s Julius Caesar, switching between the titular role and Cassius in the latest of his succession of Shakespearean performances. So he replied: “Yes, yes, Daddy works.”
Understandably given their youth and how the pandemic has distorted their sense of routine and time, Elliot and his three-year-old sister, Eve, hadn’t clocked that when their father reappeared at night in the family’s Stanmore home in inner-western Sydney in late 2021 to open a beer, he was relaxing after a day’s gruelling rehearsal.
The STC’s contemporary take on Julius Caesar was performed by just three actors. Director Kip Williams asked the trio to concoct wild, satirical, TikTok-style memes that were projected above their heads in the Wharf 1 Theatre. Leslie had to both take part in his own assassination and play the bloodied corpse, and the conspiracy was streamed online within the theatre as well as announced in the Roman forum.
Thinking that his son might be interested in his latest production, which opens at the STC in August, with Williams again directing, Leslie told Elliot: “You know, I’m now doing Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, which is about…” Elliot interrupted him: “Yeah, yeah, I know what it’s about.” Leslie told his son: “I don’t think you do. I just think you don’t care, and that’s okay.”
I also assumed I knew what Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 Gothic story was about, having watched the 1920 silent movie version with John Barrymore – one of the first horror films made – and the 1931 version with Fredric March, which was produced in the pre-Hays Code censorship days and is surprisingly frank in its sexuality and violence.
But when I read the novella, it became clear that adaptations play fast and loose with Stevenson’s tale of a London scientist who supernaturally transforms himself in his laboratory into a violent and lustful ogre. When we first speak on the day before rehearsals begin, Leslie tells me he hasn’t seen any of the film adaptations: before accepting the role, when he finally read the book, his primary knowledge of the story came from the 1947 Tom and Jerry cartoon short Dr Jekyll and Mr Mouse, and a 1955 Bugs Bunny spoof, Hyde and Hare.
“It’s almost like the true monster of the story is opinion, and public opinion, and these characters are living within these social pressures,” says Leslie. “And I suppose there’s a sadness.”
Leslie senses a strong erotic attachment between Jekyll and Hyde. “There’s this guy, Dr Jekyll, who has these wants and these urges and these things that he’d love to do in his life that could make him happy,” he says. “But he feels completely unable to explore them because of what people might say and think, so he creates this entirely different persona that he then uses to go out and fulfil these desires.”
The idea that the fear of being condemned by public opinion might become a psychological monster resonates personally for Leslie. “In a weird way, there’s a similarity with art and creativity and anything you make,” he says. “You’re constantly trying to find this strange balance of really caring about what people are going to think about it, and at the same time going, ‘But I don’t care’, because I just have to create it and [be able to] make decisions.” Then, he backtracks: “I say that like I’ve mastered it; by the way, I promise I have not. I try to talk myself into it.”
Fear of condemnation is the actor’s lot. Leslie’s friend, the actor Toby Schmitz, calls Leslie “the worrier”, and once told me that when they shared a home in Sydney in the early 2000s, Leslie was an insomniac who paced the room when he was agitated.
His partner of 20 years, the screen producer Nicole O’Donohue, says he is still a “terrible insomniac. He’s absolutely an overthinker”. The pair met in 2002 when Leslie was working behind the bar at the Old Fitzroy Hotel, the Fitz, in Woolloomooloo, while performing in the co-op theatre located in the cellar of the building.
“It’s funny,” says Leslie, resting his chin in his hand. “I’m trying to get better at [not worrying]. The thing is that you start to realise there’s so many things you can’t control, and I think the older I get, the more I’m just coming to peace with that.”
The 2021 production of Julius Caesar was the first time Perth-born Leslie had acted on stage since having children. The previous time he trod the boards was as the lead in Anton Chekhov’s Ivanov, directed by Eamon Flack at Sydney’s Belvoir St Theatre in 2015. He then paused a stage career that has included several acclaimed Shakespearean leads, including playing Hamlet in three separate productions, the first at 19 at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts in Perth.
Leslie’s big theatre break came in 2007 when he auditioned for Philip Seymour Hoffman for a small role in Andrew Upton’s play Riflemind for the STC. Up to that point, Leslie had spent seven years losing roles to more experienced actors. “[Hoffman] was my favourite actor at the time,” Leslie recalls. “He just kept saying to me, ‘You’ve gotta be bold and you’ve got to make bold choices.’ ”
From there, he auditioned to play Hal, who becomes Henry V, in the nine-hour 2009 epic The War of the Roses, a distillation of eight Shakespeare plays, directed by Benedict Andrews and co-written with Tom Wright, that was the swansong production of the Sydney Theatre Company’s Actors Company. Andrews “took a massive risk and gave me a massive opportunity”, says Leslie. “I did Riflemind, where I had seven or eight lines, and a year later I had seven or eight monologues that went for half an hour on stage, with me covered in various forms of liquids.”
Leslie’s subsequent performance in Simon Phillips’ 2010 production of Richard III for the Melbourne Theatre Company had Ian McKellen rhapsodising: “I’ve seen it and [Leslie’s] brilliant, as is the production, wonderful.” Leslie recalls: “I didn’t completely see it coming. I mean, I was shitting myself – you talk about worrying, I was shitting myself during rehearsals … I’m glad I was terrified; I need that terror. Richard III was one of the most amazing cultural experiences I’ve had.”
Before the pandemic, Leslie filmed several noteworthy lead screen roles, among them the Stan crime-supernatural series The Gloaming, the ABC comedy-drama Operation Buffalo, and the ABC–BBC co-production The Cry, which was partly filmed in London. He played bad guys in Warwick Thornton’s Sweet Country and Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale, and a stricken father in Simon Stone’s The Daughter.
When Covid-19 hit the industry, Leslie and O’Donohue packed up their rented Bondi home and two children and dashed to Culburra Beach on the New South Wales south coast, to be closer to O’Donohue’s family during the enforced social isolation of the pandemic.
Leslie knows he has been one of the fortunate ones in his industry, but that doesn’t mean the pandemic was kind. “You have people like myself, who were unable to get JobKeeper through that period, even though my agent was getting JobKeeper – and so they should, they’re [running a] business and they deserve it – but the kind of Kafkaesque wormhole of that,” says Leslie. “I was very lucky I’d had a run of work, so I was able to survive through that period. It’s not what I was hoping to do with the money; when I was looking at my Barefoot Investor, setting up my ‘fire extinguisher’ account [for fighting financial fires], worldwide pandemic was not on the list of things that you might need to be preparing for.”
In October 2020, Leslie and O’Donohue moved back to Sydney. O’Donohue produced the Sarah Kendall ABC comedy Frayed and Leslie filmed a few episodes in the Netflix series Pieces of Her in Sydney with Toni Collette and, more recently, a role opposite Rachel Griffiths in the forthcoming Stan anthology series Bali 2002, about the bombings of that year.
Does he entertain thoughts of basing himself overseas, perhaps in London? “I’d love to do it, but if I was to do it, I think I’d go over for a short period of time and then come back,” he says. “Like, I can’t see with the kids starting school, moving over with them as a family.”
For now, Jekyll and Hyde will keep Leslie on his toes. It’s performed by two actors: Leslie and Matthew Backer, who plays lawyer Gabriel Utterson. The creative team behind this show is the same for Williams’ acclaimed adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, which featured Eryn-Jean Norvill in a virtuosic one-woman performance. It sets the bar high: Leslie says Norvill’s work in Dorian Gray is one of the top five stage performances he’s seen.
Williams is driving a “sort of cinetheatre”, requiring Leslie and Backer to prerecord footage, and that needs to be locked in early. When I speak to Leslie again in late June, he’s back at the Walsh Bay rehearsal space and has just had wig and costume fittings that morning. He will be playing a number of characters in this adaptation: the point is, he says, that “there can be three, four, five, six, seven people all existing in the soul of one person”.
Have they settled on what Hyde will look like? “The most annoying answer to that is yes and no,” says Leslie. “Even though no one can fully describe Hyde, they do say he is crooked and hunched over and has a quick, light way about him, so the thinking at the moment is you set him up and as the show goes on, hopefully you break that down. There’s also the question of how much what he looks like exists in Jekyll’s mind. Perhaps by the end of the show there’s no difference between Jekyll and Hyde.”
For now, Leslie is grappling with the widespread misconception that Dr Jekyll drinks a potion and turns into an evil person. “In fact, all he does is create this other form in which this evil that’s secretly inside him anyway can emerge,” he says. “What is evil is also up for grabs.”
Has he considered that it’s problematic to conflate physical disfigurement with evil? Leslie says he certainly has, though he doesn’t directly address it. He emails me later after pondering the question: “It is an interesting question about ‘evil’ being equated to physical deformity. I think the thing is that the ‘secret side’ of him that he fears society will see as evil has been less exercised in his life, so he makes the scientific conclusion that Hyde is therefore ‘smaller, slighter and perhaps younger’ than him.”
The other day, Leslie says, his son showed him a picture he’d drawn of good guys who fight ninjas, and when these good guys got caught, they turned into bad guys. “You know, it’s like your show,” Elliot told his father. “He’s good, but then he takes the potion, and then he’s bad. He’s good and he’s bad and finally at the end, he stays bad, and he’s not able to go good again.”
Leslie realised then that, in his own way, his son had indeed grasped what the story was about. But for the actor, grappling with the role, there were deeper complexities: the moral complications that adults place in the path of desire, and how the duality of good and evil can be a construction that suppresses our deeper selves.
“I think,” Leslie emails again, “the main thing is that ‘evil’ is only evil in the way society views it. Hence why [public] opinion is the true monster of the show.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 23, 2022 as "Dual lingo".
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