It’s difficult to picture a book more difficult to adapt for the stage than Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. It’s the best-selling British book of the noughties (J.K. Rowling’s seven-part juggernaut aside) and one of the defining books of the decade, but it’s not the book’s success that makes it so difficult to adapt. Curious Incident deals with un-showy themes, telling the story of an Asperger’s Syndrome teenager who discovers his neighbour’s dog skewered with a garden fork. Dead dogs and Asperger’s may not have the same show-tune theatricality as, say, The Lion King, but against all the odds Curious Incident may just be the perfect theatrical adaptation.
This play has taken a strange journey to the stage, almost worthy of a book unto itself. Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time emerged in 2003 as a surprise commercial and critical success, a rare book with true generational crossover appeal. Like the Harry Potter series, Curious Incident was released with both children’s and adult’s editions, though nothing was toned down for the kids. From the moment Christopher discovers his neighbour’s dead dog and is implicated as the attacker (“What in f**k’s name have you done to my dog?”), both adults and children could relate to his outsider status. Haddon’s stark prose, aided by occasional insightful diagrams, unfolded Christopher’s mind in a way that made his plight somehow relatable.
But the book wasn’t appreciated by everyone. Its release prompted some serious backlash from the medical community, many of whom criticised its depiction of Asperger’s Syndrome, seemingly ignoring the fact that the book never actually mentions autism or Asperger’s Syndrome. Mark Haddon publicly stated his irritation with the way the book was marketed. “It’s not a novel about a boy who has Asperger’s syndrome,” he said in a 2003 radio interview with Terry Gross, “It’s a novel about a young mathematician who has some strange behavioral problems.”
In addition, certain communities in America took offence to the book’s use of language and Christopher’s vaguely atheistic views. Curious Incident was banned in a Tennessee school district and denounced by a group of parents in Texas, who protested the book’s presence in school libraries. But, despite the book’s misinterpretation as both a treatise on autism and an anti-God statement, nothing could stop the love for The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and it was soon to appear in a whole new form.
There was perhaps some apprehension about the theatrical debut of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time – after all, how do you convey the complexities of autism in an exciting and, above all, theatrical way? The answer, it turned out, was a great deal of audacity and inventiveness. Simon Stephens’s adaptation, directed by Marianne Elliott, blew audiences away and quickly transferred from the National Theatre to the West End, drawing comparisons with the extraordinary success of War Horse. Critics were equally wowed and Curious Incident went on to win a record seven Olivier Awards, including Best Actor, Best Director and Best Play. But it wasn’t all roses for the startling new play and, a year after its debut, disaster struck.
On the 19th December 2013, audience members were in the theatre enjoying their respite from a thunderstorm, when there was a cracking sound and a flurry of debris from the ceiling. The actors broke character to warn the audience of the danger, but many believed their cries to be part of the show and were slow to react. In the following moments, the ceiling collapsed. Lighting rigs, masonry and ornate plasterwork fell more than thirty feet, taking down parts of balcony and trapping audience members beneath. Eighty people were injured, seven seriously, and the show was cancelled.
But, as the age-old phrase goes, “the show must go on” and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time reopened the following July to continue its sell-out success. It opened on Broadway the following year and the show is now embarking on its UK tour, allowing the rest of Britain to enjoy this ambitious, innovative production. And you’d be foolish to miss this opportunity, as it’s one of the most imaginative shows to ever grace the West End.
What’s so clever about Curious Incident is the way Christopher’s mental perspective fills the stage, to the extent that the set is just a 3D mathematical grid. The way this minimalistic set is used has to be seen to be appreciated, a perfect combination of lighting effects, sound design, physical theatre, visual trickery and unbridled imagination culminating in a dazzling sequence in which Christopher makes his way to London. These theatrical techniques form a sensory overload that perfectly represents Christopher’s unique way of thinking.
This would all be meaningless if not held together by a strong story and thankfully The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time delivers on all fronts. At its core, this is a play about families and Christopher’s fractured relationship with his father is nuanced and heart-achingly believable. For a play about a boy lacking emotional connection, it’s strange how tearful an audience member can become. There’s humour too, particularly in Christopher’s interactions with ‘ordinary’ people who struggle to understand his regimented outlook on life. By the time live animals appear on stage, you begin to wonder what Curious Incident doesn’t have up its sleeve. Clever, heartfelt, rousing, amusing and inspiring, this is modern theatre at its best.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time may have taken a rough route to the stage, but thankfully everyone across Britain can now experience its wonders. If there’s one thing you see at the theatre this year, make sure it’s this startlingly imaginative and heart-warming play.
Filed under: Theatre & DanceTagged with: aspergers, Leeds Grand Theatre; The Lyceum; theatre; National Theatre; Curious Incident, mark haddon