based on the novel by Mark Haddon
at the Cottesloe Theatre, Monday 27th August 2012
It’s not often that I come out of a production at the National thinking “Yes, that is why this theatre was made”. Hytner’s reign has seen consistently solid work, but rarely does the tripartite of pleasing crowds, pushing boundaries and asking questions come to fruition (I know that’s not the official manifesto, but I think it’s a good thing to ask of any piece of theatre). Simon Stephens’ adaptation of Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time does all off these things, however, in a rich production directed by Marianne Elliott.
Looking at the creative team and the final production, it’s clear this is a truly collaborative project. Haddon’s novel feeds into Stephens’ text which feeds into Elliott’s direction, Bunny Christie’s design and the movement work of Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett. Each is linked to the others, with none existing purely on its own. If this is the state of British theatre to come, perhaps we shouldn’t be worrying too much.
The most jarring thing about this production is the framing device Stephens has chosen. The character of Siobhan (Niamh Cusack) is added, acting as both mentor to Stephen and narrator of his story as his book is supposedly transformed into a school play. It’s a sensible move, for otherwise we would just hear the book being read, and as Haddon points out, “Christopher is an outsider”, meaning that he is able to impose this version of events on the play. He is writer, actor and protagonist, playing all simultaneously. Nevertheless, though this school play aspects allows for some sniggers at the beginning of Act Two (“You’re too old to play a policeman”), the ingenious decision to frame the play like this feels underused. Granted, this allows the story to be recounted more clearly, but there’s so much more material here which could be mined for nuance.
Aside from this, it’s a wonderful adaptation of Haddon’s novel. Andrew Haydon’s coining of the term “autistic realism” to describe Stephens’ writing style fits perfectly here considering the subject matter (though, of course, that’s not to sum up autism as one specific thing or trivialise the condition; it merely provides a useful descriptor and conveys the correct feeling). Christopher is, in some respects, the epitomic Stephens violent youth, and thus speaks in much the same way as characters in, for example, Morning, saying exactly what he’s thinking in short, matter-of-fact sentences. Everyone around him – his mother, his father and his neighbours – are all comparatively distant, refusing to speak the truth and failing to communicate.
The comparison to Stephens’ other works is perhaps not very useful, but it’s certainly interesting. Christopher is Stephanie (Morning), William (Punk Rock) and Scott (Herons) all rolled into one with a little extra awkwardness and an even less sympathetic environment. His condition is exacerbated by a largely uncaring adult populace and a confusing, selfish society, while the thrust of the narrative is caused by an early violent act (it’s a dead dog. Sorry to ruin it). Unlike Stephens’ original work, however, there is a little more hope in Haddon’s story, though this version manages to ensure it’s not oversentimentalised. As I say, this comparison isn’t exactly necessary or even watertight, but it’s clear why the pairing has been made.
Christie’s design in effect places Christopher’s mind centre stage, consisting of a scaled-up A4 piece of graph paper onto which images are projected. We see the plan of the neighbourhood drawn in the book and the multitude of signs which Christopher finds it hard to process (to be fair, it’s a wonder any of us manage to find our way around in the giant billboard-cum-public-service-announcement that is London). LED lights in the floor demarcate spaces in this universe and, in conjunction with Paule Constable’s lighting design, confine Christopher in his own safe circles of colour. On the light boxes around the side, props are labelled and placed in an orderly fashion, while prime numbered seats in the auditorium are clearly defined with white covers; our protagonist has clearly created this stage himself.
In case we didn’t notice this triumph of collaborative design already, all the stops are pulled for the epilogue, which sees Christopher demonstrating the solution to the question “Can you prove that a triangle with sides that can be written in the form n2+1, n2-1 and 2n is right-angled ?” He uses all the “tools of the theatre”, including video projection, sound, music and lights to reveal the answer. It makes you wonder why this method of teaching isn’t used in schools (yeah, I know, it costs too much. Boring).
This theme of maths and science runs throughout, and the ‘autistic’ way of looking at these things is actually shown to be a refreshing, rational one. The wonder of the universe is explained in simple, scientific terms, and Christopher’s discussion of the Monty Hall problem shows that joy can be found in mathematics (I now, after years of trying, finally and truly understand it). His questioning of the whereabouts of heaven is a particularly brilliant moment, and sees the rationalism of science pitted against the faith of religion; in a time when atheists are depicted as semi-demonic, it’s refreshing to see someone who doesn’t believe in any kind of deity as purely logical. The simple retort “It’s a fact” is a phrase I may start using in conversation when countering an idiotic argument with hard evidence.
No depiction of Asperger Syndrome can be ‘accurate’, just as no depiction of any minority can be ‘accurate’, but after spending time with my parents (they are both social workers) and bumping into their clients, Luke Treadaway’s performance is certainly a recognisable one. It is supported by a well-painted picture of how society reacts to anyone with difference (condescension, ignorance and anger are three of the most frequent reactions) and nuanced, sympathetic dialogue. The juxtaposing Christopher listening to the letters from his mother with him finding comfort in building a train track is a touching and simple way of illustrating some of the problems individuals with the condition face. This, coupled with the logical progression and confusing beats of Adrian Sutton’s music, means the issues and questions which autism raises are dealt with in a way which educates and raises awareness.
A strong ensemble cast are clearly just as much a part of the collaborative process as the directors and designers. Nicola Walker and Paul Ritter as Christopher’s mother and father both try their hardest to be calm and sympathetic towards their son, but sometimes lose their rag, just as the best of us do, but demonstrate love and attention are invaluable. Una Stubbs, Howard Ward and Nick Sidi all shine in their various roles; the decision to use multi-role-playing is a clever one, for the difficulties sufferers of Asperger’s have in recognising faces and emotions is theatricalised. Cusack and Treadaway are both outsiders to this mad world, and while the former watches from the sidelines, our protagonist is caught up in Graham and Hoggett’s movement, creating beautiful moving images which replicate the chaos of life on stage.
Elliott’s direction is the glue to all this, ensuring the common theme of sympathy runs throughout. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” is, and always has been, a piece about far more than simply the difficulties of living with Asperger’s. This production offers both theatricality and humanity, and asks many more questions along the way. Though this tech-heavy, almost-but-not-quite-total-theatre style of theatre (used also by directors such as Rupert Goold and Thea Sharrock recently) is becoming more popular, it is still seen infrequently enough to make it surprising and innovative on each occasion. The popularity of the book draws in the crowds here, but it’s a production which asks questions and introduces new ideas, regardless of your views about autism, theatre, science or the Monty Hall Problem.