The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon is one of my favourite novels. Imagine my delight to learn that not only was the book being made into a play, but that the play was going to be performed by the National Theatre in London, and that the performance was going to be broadcast in movie theatres around the world (including here in Toronto) as part of the NT Live program. Luke Treadaway (who recently appeared in Attack the Block) plays protagonist Christopher Boone, a 15-year-old boy with Asperger’s Syndrome (he has difficulty understanding normal social interaction and relies on repetitive patterns and peculiar personal rules to cope with life) who one day discovers that his neighbour’s dog has been killed. Against his father’s wishes, he starts to write a book about his investigation into who killed Wellington the dog which leads to all kinds of experiences and revelations that change Christopher’s life. One mystery leads to a second much more personal mystery. At first I wondered how they were going to dramatize this book, since a lot of it comes from narration and monologues of Christopher’s thoughts. Being a character with such a special mental world, his way of thinking was not going to be something that viewers could just intuit from his actions or dialogue. Somehow we needed to stay inside his head. Fortunately, director Marianne Elliott not only decided to include passages from Christopher’s own book-within-a-book read by his teacher, Siobhan. That teacher also became one of the voices of Christopher’s thoughts, in the same way that his father and mother did as well.
The actors in this production all gave wonderful performances. Treadaway was able to help us understand Christopher a bit, and gave him a kind of sweet warmth despite the often technical and long-winded dialogue (Christopher is really into math, logic, and astronomy, so the things he says aren’t your average conversations). At 27 he was still somewhat convincing playing a teenage character (It didn’t hurt that Christopher’s age is difficult to pin down because of his autism) and didn’t come across as a caricature or someone acting abnormally juvenile. I love the character of Christopher Boone because I really identified with him on the page. However, since I am not autistic myself, I connect less with him on that personal level when he and his mental condition are portrayed in the flesh. With Treadaway’s performance, I really bought his autism, so this time I enjoyed that character from more of an outside perspective. Paul Ritter, who played Christopher’s father, was also really good. Mr. Boone was already a very rich character, being something of an average working-class man’s-man, not particularly touchy-feely but a very strong, patient, and loving father. Ritter made him into a normal, flawed and ordinary man who has weaknesses and limitations, gets frustrated, but is always conscious of how he needs to do what’s best for his son. Similarly, Christopher’s mother was portrayed by Sophie Duval in both a tender and realistic way. How she admitted her failures with her son and tried to make up for them was very touching.
In every theatre production I am eager to see how the staging is done. I am amazed at how many theatrical tricks are used to turn the stage area into so many different places and ideas. This performance was done “in the round”, so there were audience members on all four sides of a black rectangular performance area. The area was filled with lines and lights in a grid like graph paper. The lights would change depending on the configuration to simulate walls or streets, but the masterpiece was the overhead lighting that projected images onto the stage floor (I’m surprised that the people in the audience could get the full experience when it took an overhead camera shot for those of us watching in the movie theatre to see the entire picture). At first, lines were used to outline building frames like floor plans, but then the projections became more sophisticated: from text indicating an explosion of thoughts to one incredible scene of Christopher reluctantly making his way down an escalator. There was even the amazing effect of imitating a subway train track by using lighting and opening a divide in the stage floor. The projections were also used in the encore scene where Christopher explains how he solved a math problem (it’s pretty funny). The play is full of humour, often ironic because Christopher might make a statement of something he considers mere fact, but it’s humourous to the listener because it is not something we’d normally say out loud.
Overall I really enjoyed the play. The NT Theatre Live experience was just as adequate as it was last time. The image is far from HD-quality. In fact, the blacks were mostly greys and nothing was sharp like real life. Nevertheless, without NT Live, I probably wouldn’t have even been able to see this play — even if I had been living in London (sigh) — since the show is constantly sold out. For anyone interested in the book or the play, I would highly recommend them both. If I were reviewing the book, I would give it a 5 out of 5, but for the NT Live Theatre experience of this theatrical adaptation, I go with 4.5 out of 5