Thursday, 30 April 2015

Inside Outsiders - The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time Onstage

Everybody loves an outsider. In literature and film, it's the
oddball, the geek and the troublesome, the shyly intelligent but socially
awkward or emotionally damaged anti-hero who readers and audiences identify
with. If such protagonists are teenagers angrily coming to terms with a world
that seems to be against them, the appeal is even greater, whether it's James
Dean's sensitive tough guy in Rebel Without A Cause or an entire coterie of
misfits in John Hughes' ultimate teen angst flick, The Breakfast Club.

In
books, J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye has itself become a rites of
passage for young readers who can identify with the book's narrator, Holden
Caulfield, while Jay McInerny did something similar for teenage girls in his
1988 novel, Story of My Life. All of which goes some way to explaining the
phenomenal and enduring success of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the
Night-Time ever since Mark Haddon's novel was first published in 2003.

Now
rightly regarded as a modern classic, Haddon's novel, written, as with the books
named above, in the first-person voice of its socially anxious protagonist and
narrator, Christopher, wasn't an obvious choice to be adapted for the stage. To
make it happen at all, playwright Simon Stephens and director Marianne Elliot
had, like Christopher, to take a leap into the unknown and go beyond what was
effectively a very long monologue to dramatise it beyond the page.

Both were
fans of the book before the idea was mooted by Haddon, who first approached
Stephens with a view to him adapting it.

“I was immensely flattered,” says
Stephens, who wrote the play without the pressures of a commission. “I loved the
book for years, and was inspired by it in earlier plays before I’d even met him.
I was daunted by the book’s celebrity and fascinated by the challenge of how one
dramatises a novel. I very much wanted to find out what Christopher’s parents
looked like and thought a good way of doing that would be to dramatise
them.”

Elliot too had read the book when it first came out, and “absolutely
loved it. I never thought in a million years that it would be adapted for the
stage.  In fact I thought it was a book you couldn’t really adapt.”

Stephens,
on the other hand, relished the opportunity to get stuck in to such seemingly
unwieldy material, with what he calls “the innate dramatic charge” of the book's
dialogue making it “eminently stageable. I had the hunch that in the direct
speech there would be clues as to the books dramatic heart.  It was through this
that I came up with the idea of using Siobhan as a narrator. She is one of only
three people who read Christopher’s book in the novel and her view point is so
much like the novel’s readers.”

Stephens presented an early version of the
play to Elliot, again without any production in the pipeline. Such a casual
approach paid dividends for both parties.

“I had absolutely no expectation
and read it with an open mind,” Elliot says. “I wasn’t worried about how I was
going to stage it or thinking ‘is this ever going to work?’ I read it a couple
of times and I knew I loved it.  I thought it was very visceral and incredibly
emotional. I had no idea how you’d do it, absolutely none.  At that time there
wasn’t much help in the stage directions for things like Christopher’s journey
to London.  I just thought it’s an amazing story and he’s found a way to make it
work, with lots of voices rather than just Christopher.”

Key to the
dramatisation was bringing physical theatre company Frantic Assembly into the
creative mix.

“I knew Frantic Assembly’s work and I had always wanted to work
with them,” she says. “I knew that there were a lot of parts of the play that
needed to be staged imaginatively with the actors on the stage as opposed to
great bits of scenery.”

In this way, the play is effectively staged inside
Christopher's head, with the audience getting a glimpse at the turmoil going
on.

“I was really keen that it shouldn’t be too hi-tech,” says Elliot, “that
it had to look like it was all created by people on stage, humans making the
story.  Between us we eventually came to a happy place that it should be his
brain and that it should be a box, and that in the box there are lots of magic
tricks.  But the magic tricks aren’t down to incredible moving digital scenery,
it’s to do with seeing how the humans create the magic.

“I didn’t want there
to be any logic to a particular part of the stage being the school and another
part of the stage being the home.  I wanted to keep changing the logic because
Christopher does. Christopher decides he wants to tell you a story about four
red cars in a row regardless of where he is in the narrative.”

Both Stephens
and Elliot had previous form with work which has young people at its centre,
Stephens with his school library set play, Punk Rock, and Elliot with War Horse,
which she co-directed.

“There’s a parallel in that they are both stories
about triumphing in the face of  adversity,” Elliot says. “Both have a young boy
in the central role.  Both are about the rites of passage and growing up.  The
staging of both shows doesn’t rely on theatrical trickery or illusion, with the
actors creating the story in front of an audience. The thing about the play and
the book is that we try to get the audience to see things through Christopher’s
eyes most of the time.  They don’t see him as ‘other’. They see him as
themselves.”

For Stephens, the play comes even closer to home.

“I think
it’s a story about family,” he says. “I think it’s about what it’s like to raise
a child or be raised; to parent or have parents.  I think it’s a celebration of
the capacity for bravery in the most unlikely of environments. Stories of
bravery resonate. Stories of families resonate.”

Commissioned by John Good & Co as programme notes for the National Theatre's 2015 tour of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, and written February 2015

ends

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