Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time Works Brilliantly on Stage

Adapted and directed by Simon Stephens
National Theatre Live
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 When I heard that the National Theatre of London had done a stage adaptation of Mark Haddon’s acclaimed novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, my first thought was “How?” Luckily my second instinct was to check it out. Glad I did—it’s a small masterpiece the likes of which will make North American audiences jealous of the creativity that can be accomplished when government subsidizes the arts.  (Imagine such a thing!) Anyone living within driving distance of a movie theater that broadcasts NT productions should make a beeline for this one.

If you’ve read the novel, you will certainly share my kneejerk skepticism over turning it into a play. Its central character is Christopher, a 15-year-old high functioning autistic student. He’s imaginative, a math savant, capable of intense concentration, and is (literally) incapable of falsehood. He’s also terrified of being touched or having his routines altered, has few social graces, is unable to master most mundane tasks, and is so withdrawn that he makes Mr. Spock seem like Mr. Rogers. We first meet Christopher—played with utter brilliance by Luke Treadway–bending over the body of a pitchforked dog, which he is falsely accused of having killed. And we witness his first emotional meltdown when he assaults the policeman who lays hands on him. That trauma out of the way, we proceed to learn about Christopher, his well-meaning but ineffectual father (Paul Ritter), his missing mother (Nicola Walker), and his special needs teacher, Siobhan (Niamh Cusack). I’ll say no more except to say that when Christopher becomes obsessed with solving the dog’s murder, it takes him and the audience on a journey fraught with peril, revelation, drama, and reconciliation.

Haddon’s novel was told almost entirely from Christopher’s (skewed) point of view, so the first stage hurdle is how to represent a mind whose logic runs on a completely different course than most. How, indeed, does one physically show something as abstract as human thought? Stephens and producer Marianne Elliott accomplish this with a set that’s where minimalism meets high tech. The play takes place in a theater in the round upon a bare stage that’s something akin to a mash between a chalkboard, an electrical grid, and an iPad. It can be drawn upon or projected onto, and subsurface lights and diodes are activated by computers to build what can be described as light-based semiotic signs. Need to show a subway train? Activate two vertical lines and set them in motion.  A neighborhood street? A series of squares connected by lighted corridors along which actors dash will do the trick. When Christopher’s mind overloads, lights flash, and holographic letters tumble randomly from the ceiling like snowy gibberish.

Clever staging will take one only so far, though, and it’s the acting that makes those lights sparkle. Treadway is astonishing, both physically and in his range of emotions. He can go from withdrawn to a semi-psychotic tiger and back with the brush of fingertips. He also strikes the perfect balance between being lovable and exasperating. Kudos also to Ritter, who convincingly portrays a working-class bloke with simple tastes who wants to do well for a son who is equal parts genius and volcano, but hasn’t a clue on how to manage his own emotions, let alone Christopher’s.  Niamh Cusack—the younger sister of SinĂ©ad—is also superb as Siobhan, a teacher with the patience of a saint, but the cleverness to plant ideas in Christopher’s mind in non-threatening ways. All I’ll say is this: stay until the very end, after the credits.

Loved the book and loved they play even more. It reminds us that theater done well, with superb actors and visionary directors, casts magical spells that TV and movies often fail to convey. The tendency of the latter would be to convert Christopher’s story to biography, which isn’t the best frame for a boy who lives in his imagination. Simon Stephens invites us inside Christopher’s chaotic mind and we are richer for the experience. —Rob Weir

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