‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time’ a coming of age story with a twist
This well-crafted adaptation of the best-selling novel by Mark Haddon, broadcast by NL Live, is soon to be staged on Broadway
When I was a girl I had an aunt who liked to give educational birthday gifts. One year she came up with a winner. It was a tabletop cardboard theater — complete with cardboard characters, cut-out costumes, and a small volume of tales for the young playwright to make into scenes that would come alive on stage.
It was challenging to convert a story told in the third person into dialogue, but nothing like the challenge facing London’s National Theatre when they decided to convert Mark Haddon’s popular book, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, into a stage play. Haddon, who at one point of his life worked with autistic people, lets us experience the world through the eyes of Christopher Boone, a very singular 15-year-old.
Thanks to the Manlius Art Cinema, a good number of people (myself included) were privileged to see this world as well Monday night, through the NT Live broadcast. Word is getting around town. You have another chance to see it on Saturday at noon.
In many ways Christopher is brilliant. He knows, as he tells us, every prime number up to 7,057, and he can handle complex mathematical problems. He can recall in minute detail a day on the beach with his mother years earlier. He can expound on black holes and gravitational forces. But he is ill-equipped to deal with everyday life. He can’t read the emotional expression on people’s faces. He’s terrified of strangers, and can’t bear to be touched. Looking out a train window, he counts the number of cows that have black spots, and notices a plastic bag caught up in the bushes. Overwhelmed by so much data input, Christopher’s mind crashes. He can only rock back and forth and scream.
So how do you get an audience inside a mind like Christopher’s? Words alone can’t do it. What that cardboard stage couldn’t teach me was the sheer wizardry of stagecraft, especially in the digital age.
Going for intimacy, Director Marianne Elliott and her brilliant creative team reconfigured the Cottesloe (the smallest of the National’s three theaters) as a theater-in-the-round, with the audience on steeply-banked rows on all four sides. There’s no place for scenery. The props were limited to square boxes. So what did they have to work with in supporting the able cast in telling the story? Lighting, sound, music. And … the floor!
The story is a mystery that Christopher (Luke Treadway) sets out to solve over the objections of his father (Paul Ritter.) A neighbor’s dog has been found killed with a garden fork. Since Christopher’s main passion (next to outer space) is Sherlock Holmes, he sets out to find the murderer — even if it means overcoming his fears and interviewing some of neighbors. With the encouragement of his school counselor, Siobhan (Niamh Cusack), Christopher writes up his findings and other reflections in a book he titles The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time.
Furious that Christopher has disobeyed his order to stop snooping into other people’s business, his father hides the book. In searching for it, Christopher comes upon unopened letters addressed to him that his mother (Nicola Walker), whom he believed dead, has been writing him over the course of several years. For this is a family drama about the strain that caring for a special-needs child like Christopher can put upon a marriage, even to the breaking point.
I won’t spoil the mystery by telling you who killed the dog, but I will say that the nail-biting part of the book, and much of the second act of the play (NT Live gives us the full theater experience, including intermission) shows Christopher’s Odyssey from his father’s home — a place called Swindon — to find his mother in London. This is, after all, a boy who has never been off his street except to be taken to school. He is terrified of being together with strangers, he has never seen an escalator, he is utterly bewildered by the rush of people around him, the din of the subway, the profusion of messages inundating his mind.
The physicality of this production helps us understand what Christopher is experiencing. There are seven actors who play multiple roles (e.g., the woman at the information desk, the policeman trying to return Christopher to his father) and take part in the choreography of the play, lifting Christopher overhead as they tumble him head-over-heels. Part of the marvel of this production is how well the ensemble works together.
Luke Treadaway’s 2013 Olivier Award as Best Actor was well-deserved. (The play walked away with seven Olivier’s all together.) Treadaway completely inhabits the role of Christopher, winning the hearts of the audience. Slender and lithe, he convincingly portrays a youngster almost half his 29 years. He has been described as the National’s million-dollar actor, having also originated the starring role of 14-year-old Albert in War Horse, also directed by Elliott.
Niamh Cusack, scion of the great Irish acting family, filled the role of Christopher’s teacher and counselor with a quiet confidence, guiding him every step of the way. Nicola Walker and Paul Ritter were well cast as Christopher’s mother and father, trying hard to give Christopher the understanding he needs, but falling short.
And now about that amazing floor. It is divided into a grid pattern and equipped with (as Christopher informs us in an epilogue) light-emitting diodes that constantly shift the patterns to delineate the space.
When the kindly elderly neighbor (Una Stubbs) answers the door, the lines of the floor become the footprint of her house. When Christopher tries to hold himself together by repeating left, right, left, right, as he progresses through the subway tunnel, the squares of the floor turn red to show his path. Amid the din of the railroad station, the messages assaulting Christopher’s mind – Heathrow… Millie’s Cookies… Way Out… taxis… position closed… sushi… angle across the floor at dizzying speed. The special effects — such as when Christopher, attempting to rescue his pet rat on he subway track, is pulled to safety from an oncoming train — are simply dazzling.
This production was so successful at the National Theatre it was moved to the West End — the London equivalent of Broadway — and will come to our own Broadway in September (hopefully with the same excellent cast). This production works so well in the round it’s hard to imagine what it will be like on a proscenium arch stage. The filmed version sometimes shoots straight down on the action to give us the best view. You can save a lot of money and be sure to get an excellent perspective by seeing the repeat showing at the Manlius Cinema Saturday.
What: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, based on the novel by Mark Haddon, adapted by Simon Stephens and directed by Marianne Elliott
Who: From the English National Theatre, broadcast by NT Live
Syracuse-area showing: Manlius Art Cinema
Date of review: June 9, 2014
Time: About 2 hours and 40 minutes, including intermission
Encore performance: Noon Saturday, June 14
Ticket prices: Regular $18, senior $15