How do you portray autism on stage? Casting an actor playing someone with autism is one thing, but how do you get inside his mind?
How can theatre communicate the interior world of a 15-year-old boy? A kid whose prodigious gift for mathematics and knowledge of space makes him special, but whose ability to navigate the day-to-day world inhabited by family, neighbours and teachers is fraught with confusion, exasperation and anger?
The UK’s National Theatre touring production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time answers these questions with a joyous, heartfelt production that throws its cast of 10, and the audience, into the world of the boy, Christopher.
Dazzling and urgent lighting, video, music, sound and movement – the play rarely stands still – allow us into his head to understand how maths, space, toy trains and his pet rat act as his refuge from the mercurial behaviour of the adults around him.
The play opens on an almost empty set whose walls and floor is a mathematical grid. At the centre lies a dead golden retriever, a garden fork still piercing his body.
So begins this story of Christopher’s dogged investigation into who murdered his neighbour’s pet. It takes him beyond the (relatively) safe walls of his home and school to London. He narrates the story that sees him solve the mystery of the dead dog, but he is also forced to confront truths about his parents, whose frantic relationship with each other and him, he was either oblivious to, or hiding from.
The play is based on Mark Haddon’s famous novel of the same name and has been adapted by playwright Simon Stephens. The direct, literal language of Christopher propels the narrative as he runs away from home, but it’s the scenes where he grapples with the emotions of the adults that the economic script reveals its skill and empathy for its characters.
Director Marianne Elliott, who won a Tony award for her production of War Horse, also won a Tony and an Olivier for Curious Incident. It’s her aliveness to theatrical possibilities that lifts stories from the page to a stunning immersion into a three-dimensional world.
Along with her designer Bunny Christie, lighting designer Paule Constable, video designer Finn Ross, movement directors Frantic Assembly, sound by Autograph and music by Adrian Sutton, they create a life for Christopher that is as real as it is magical.
Christopher’s journey takes him from home to school, Swindon to London, and from the Underground to Outer Space. The actors, most of who are on stage for the play’s entirety, play dozens of characters. Lights, video, sound and choreography transform them from hordes of commuters to surly ticket inspectors to frustrated policemen. Their bodies act as his bed, rescue him from an oncoming train, and lift him into space.
As Christopher, Joshua Jenkins’ compact physicality and gift for a droll, raised eyebrow anchors him as the centre of this world around which the other characters orbit. In particular, his distressed father Ed (David Michaels), his kindly teacher Siobhan (Julie Hale) and his mother Judy, played by Emma Beattie with an affecting, sort of worn-out love.
This is a play and a production filled with unforgettable moments and images; it’s for both kids (over eight, probably) and any adult who will be reminded of what it was like to possess the fears and awe that come with childhood.
Raymond Gill is editor of The Daily Review, where this review was originally published. He attended The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time at The Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne. The show is playing there until February 25, and will then embark on a national tour that includes a season at the Adelaide Festival Centre from July 31 until August 4 (tickets on sale from Friday).