Monday, September 24, 2012

Curiouser and Curiouser: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

Mark Haddon’s beloved novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is a stunt, but a brilliant one. Haddon imagines the coming of age of a fifteen-year-old autistic boy through the perspective of its hero, Christopher Boone, who discovers – in the course of trying to solve the murder of the next-door neighbor’s dog – that his father has lied to him, claiming that his mother died of heart disease when in fact she ran off to London with the neighbor’s husband. The shock of discovering dozens of letters his mother wrote him (and his father hid) – and his fear that his father, who admits to having killed the dog in a fit of anger, might just as easily kill him – drives him to find his way from the provincial town where he lives to London, a feat that, given the limitations of his perception, requires a stunning combination of courage and invention. The book itself is a feat of sympathetic imagination and of tonal imagination too. Christopher can’t read other people’s expressions of their feelings and he can’t convey his own in any conventional way, yet the novel is poignant; he doesn’t comprehend humor, yet it’s funny and charming. It’s a sort of revision of Alice in Wonderland with a protagonist incapable of lying who falls down the rabbit hole when he has to parse the great lie that’s been told to him and then journeys all the way to London, which might as well be the end of the earth.

Luke Treadaway & Paul Ritter (photo by Manuel Harlan)
The National Theatre dramatization, which reached international audiences via HD this month, is a faithful transcription by playwright Simon Stephens, staged by Marianne Elliott (co-director of War Horse) in the National’s smallest space, the Cottesloe. The intimacy of the venue, combined with Elliott’s novel use of the space (wonderfully designed by Bunny Christie) and Peter Constable’s lighting, which often uses darkness to sculpt the environment, presents difficulties for the National Theatre Live HD series that previous productions haven’t. It takes a long time to get used to the visuals; I’d say it takes a long time to negotiate where you are in relation to what’s being played out in front of you, but in fact you never do, and you’re not supposed to, since the arena, a grid on which projections are constantly playing (usually of numbers, to suggest Christopher’s fixation on mathematics), is continually shifting to imitate the patterns forming in the young hero’s mind. Sometimes the HD version includes aerial views of the stage, which helps considerably and isn’t really a violation of the original theatrical experience, since anyone who sits in the balcony of the Cottesloe has pretty much a straight-down view of the stage. In any case, the challenges are worth meeting. This is a splendid production, with a remarkable young actor named Luke Treadway in the starring role. Treadway has amazing physical and vocal technique and an entirely novel kind of wit and ebullience. He finds dramatic equivalents to communicate Christopher’s diverted emotions (Haddon’s point is that they aren’t blocked, just deviated) and his unassailable logic.

Stephens employs two narrative methods to clarify the story. One, which comes straight out of the book, is to have Christopher’s schoolteacher, Siobhan (Niamh Cusack), read some of it, which he has written down; the other, which is introduced in act two, is to render it in the form of a play that, at Siobhan and the headmistress’s request, Christopher has written. The first works fine for much of the first act, but when Christopher reads the letter in which his mother, Judy (Nicola Walker), explains why she left, the overlay of Siobhan’s reading on top of Judy’s is distracting and doesn’t feel like a replication of Christopher’s experience. (I wasn’t wild about Cusack, whose perkiness and sashaying are way too actorish.) The second – the metatheatrical element – doesn't work at all; it’s cutesy and self-referential.

Luke Treadaway & Niamh Cusack
The play takes hold when we hear the mother’s letter. (Walker is terrific.) The scene that follows, where Christopher’s father (Paul Ritter) tries to explain his behavior to his son, whose discovery of the letters has made him physically sick and left him limp, is extraordinary, especially the moment when the father delicately peels off his son’s soaked shirt, transferring his tenderness he can’t use on his son’s body (Christopher has a horror of being touched) to this piece of clothing. The play catches fire in the second act, which begins with a twenty-minute sequence dramatizing Christopher’s trip to London (by train) and to his mother’s neighborhood (by tube). The boy explains to us that, unlike other people, he sees everything, and we begin to understand how the sensory overload – the details of what he views against the passing landscape, for example – could drive someone a little nuts. Elliott’s staging of this section is marvelous, especially the bit where Christopher, who feels safest in tight, isolated spaces, continues to hang out on the luggage rack on the train as one after another of his fellow passengers removes his or her bags, and his journey down the escalator into the bowels of the tube station. The movement is best when Elliott conceives it in tandem with Constable’s magical lighting and the projections.

Some members of the ensemble fall into the trap of stylizing their performances so oddly that they seem to be commenting on the idea of acting. That’s particularly true of Sophie Duval, who doubles as Mrs. Shears, the owner of the dog and the headmistress. But the ensemble work is good, especially when it’s playful and funny, as in a scene where Christopher searches for his book (the story he’s writing), which his father has confiscated, and the actors either demonstrate or embody the items he finds along the way. By the end, you’re completely caught up in Christopher’s world, even though you’ve never stopped observing it. He concludes his story by asking Siobhan if – now that he’s written a book, solved the mystery of the dog, and traveled to London by himself to find his mother – she thinks that he’s capable of anything. The play, unlike the novel, ends (except for a post-curtain call coda in which Christopher shows us how he solved a mathematical problem on his A levels) on this question, which, in the most affecting way, brings us back down to earth.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and The Boston Phoenix and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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