From The Observer
To be honest, I was a little apprehensive going into the screening of National Theatre Live’s “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” last Thursday night at the Browning Cinema in the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center. Mark Haddon’s novel of the same name is one of my all-time favorites, and I wondered how any theatre company could possibly recreate it. Its brilliance, like “The Catcher in the Rye,” comes from its writing — the main character’s thoughts on the page. How do you represent that visually?
Answer: you create a play in a black-box theatre, and then you film that play.
“The Curious Incident,” book and play, follows Christopher Boone, a fifteen-year-old boy who loves space, “maths” (he’s British) and his pet rat, Toby. Though it is never actually said, it is understood that he has Asperger’s Syndrome, and he attends a special school where his teacher, Siobhan, encourages him to pursue his interests. Christopher, whose mother died before the events of the story, lives with his father on a street in Swindon, England. When Christopher decides to investigate the brutal murder of a neighbor’s dog, despite the disproportionately-strong objections of his father, he sets off a chain of events that changes everything he thinks he knows about his life and family.
The story is, of course, told from Christopher’s perspective; we see the world of Swindon through his eyes. He is straightforward in speech and writing, expects everybody else to be the same way and is confused when they are not. Numbers and puzzles permeate this world: each chapter in the novel is a prime number, and he spends significant portions of the book explaining complicated logical problems and hypothetical scenarios. We read (or hear) Christopher’s thoughts, and we see how they are different from our own, but we also recognize the teenager’s eloquence and poignancy.
National Theatre Live translates this inner world to the stage remarkably well. The adaptation, which was first performed in 2012, follows the book almost exactly, using the black-box setting to recreate elements I once thought could only be written. For example, the novel contains several drawings or visual representations of Christopher’s ideas. In the play, Christopher (Luke Treadaway) actually draws these pictures with chalk on the floor of the stage, which can then be filmed from above so the movie-theatre spectator can see the shapes. The stage floor, laid out in tiles, also lights up to demarcate, say, the houses on Christopher’s street exactly as he would see them. Other novel-specific elements are simply said: in both novel and play, Christopher’s first-person account is actually a book his teacher Siobhan reads. At one point, Siobhan tells him, “It’s very clever how all the chapters are prime numbers.”
The acting is also generally spot-on. Treadaway’s Christopher stands rigidly still, focusing only on what catches his attention, making little eye contact with the other characters, playing with the strings on his hoodie, saying whatever comes to mind. His father (Howard Ward) is scruffy, downcast, sometimes angry but well-intentioned. One neighbor, Mrs. Shears (Sophie Duval), is angry and neurotic while another, Mrs. Alexander (Sherlock’s Una Stubbs), is frail and kindly. A few characters are overacted, but perhaps that’s the point: in Christopher’s world, there is little subtlety in expression.
The play really shines, however, because of what it adds to the story and Christopher’s character. The production is fluid — actors move around, alternating between characters and props, seamlessly blending storylines, trading the job of narrating Christopher’s story — giving me the sense that the world whirls around Christopher while he only sometimes notices. The stage is a chalkboard and a map, but it is also a projection canvas: when Christopher has a pointed thought, that thought is written out on the stage. When he stressed out, sans-serif prime numbers emanate from where he stands.
In one breathtakingly beautiful scene, Christopher talks about his desire to go to outer space: as the thought progresses, as he extrapolates on how much he would like it, what he would need to do to get there, how easy it would be and who he could take, the stage melts slowly away . The lights focus on him, and stars and galaxies blink to life on the walls and stage floor and Christopher’s body. Music eases into the scene as the other actors bear Christopher aloft, letting him drift away through the void, leaving the confusing and complicated world behind. The scene — and the play as a whole — speak to the beauty, humor and sadness of Christopher’s world. It both respects and adds to the novel; in a way, I now consider my experience with “The Curious Incident” complete.
Though “The Curious Incident” showed only once at DPAC, there are more takeaways than just the play itself: the novel, of course, remains amazing, an beautiful and sympathetic look at the world of autism, and I could not recommend it more. National Theatre Live is a unique and entertaining theatre company, and DPAC often screens its performances, so be on the lookout for more.
“The Curious Incident of the Dog In the Night-Time” was, however, an incredible adaptation of an incredible novel, one that deserves every accolade it wins and every audience member it wins over.