By: Angela Guardiani
It's not often that I see a show that sends me straight to the internet to look for other people's opinions. I like to see a production without added bias, experience it directly, and try to express to you, my readers, how it felt to be there, what it was like to be immersed in the experience. But this play requires something a little more, because this is a story that has a neuro-atypical person as its lead character, and everything in this magnificently produced show is meant to show us how he moves through the world.
I'm neuro-typical – that is, my brain works in roughly the same way as those of most people in my culture. Christopher Boone, the heart of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, is not. He is fifteen years old, loves animals, math, and machines, and doesn't like to be touched. He embodies some stereotypes about autistic people and is, at the same time, a unique and very real person. His story is one of the struggles and growth that come with growing up and leaving the safety of what's known, and it's also about living in a world that's not made for you. For this reason, I think it's really important that I include the voices of people who actually are on the autism spectrum as I tell you about this show, because it's a beautiful and innovative piece of theatre that I hope will raise questions in the audience about recognizing and acknowledging other voices. And I hope you see it, because whether you're a regular theatre-goer or more of a once-in-blue-moon viewer, I guarantee you won't have seen anything like this.
The title's a play on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's classic mystery The Hound of the Baskervilles because this story is a mystery, too. A neighborhood dog has been killed and no one knows why – or won't say. Christopher decides to investigate, but his line of inquiry leads to more and more questions, each one more disturbing than the last, like Pandora's box. And it isn't just events that puzzle Christopher – people and their emotions do, too. Christopher lives in a world that isn't made for him, a world where a raised eyebrow can mean anything from sexual attraction to skeptical contempt.
The astounding set design is meant to take Christopher's interior life, the way he interprets the world, and make it literal and visual. Three sides of the stage are towering black-and-white grids that show us Christopher's analytical thought processing, charts and diagrams, through stunning video projections. “Video projections” really sells it short, though. It's a visual effect that adds a lot to the play. The grids sometimes explode into a tangle of words and letters, sometimes coalesce into clear maps, sometimes blur into a terrifying sensory overload of images. The cast defies traditional ways of interaction with the set, utilizing lifts to walk on walls and float through space, twisting points of view to make the audience feel we're looking at a scene from above. And it isn't just the sides of the stage that are utilized. The floor, too, comes alive with lights and outlines and pathways. I've never seen a play given such an intensely visual interpretation. Every perspective has been taken into account. No matter where you sit in the massive Princess of Wales theatre, you will have a remarkable, immersive experience.
The acting is superb. The cast works together closely, the ensemble taking on multiple roles as people and objects (doors and letters and debit cards.) The significant adults in Christopher's life are played as flawed but not villainous. They make mistakes (sometimes big ones.) They do bad things (sometimes really bad.) They try to do better (and sometimes they do.) Some of the interactions between Christopher and people who care for him are uncomfortably akin to abuse, painful to watch. But they're saved, I think, by a restraint on the actors' part. Emma Beattie and David Michaels play characters that are deeply flawed but deeply understandable, and Julie Hale acts as a well-meaning Greek chorus. Sam Newton (in most performances, Joshua Jenkins) is astounding as Christopher. The role demands a physicality and an emotional profundity to keep the character from becoming a stereotype of autism.
There's some controversy among the autistic and neuro-atypical community about whether this play (and the book it's based on) are harmful or helpful, considering that neither Mark Haddon (novelist) or Simon Stephens (playwright) are autistic themselves. Having read the book many, many years ago, I can't disagree with critics who say that Christopher embodies many harmful stereotypes about autistic people – that they are violent, that they lack compassion, that they bring abuse on themselves. But I feel that the play addresses a lot of these issues. Play-Christopher portrayed with more sensitivity and sympathy than book-Christopher, and those scenes I mentioned earlier that feel uncomfortably close to abuse put blame squarely on the perpetrators of that abuse. Many neuro-atypical viewers have praised the play for the immediacy and accuracy of how it feels to be on the spectrum.
There's two interesting developments happening right now that make me hope this play may have, in the end, a net positive effect beyond its stunning stagecraft and powerful acting. First, for a show that puts a neuro-atypical character front and centre, it's not very autistic-friendly – it's full of pulsing lights and loud, sudden noises. Some companies that perform The Curious Incident (not this one, unfortunately) offer “sensory-friendly” performances that mean people with brains of all kinds can experience the show in way that's accessible to them. More importantly, people in the autistic community have pointed out that if the play talks about the autistic experience, it should involve actual autistics. And for the first time this month, an autistic actor – Mickey Rowe – plays the lead role in a production for Indiana State Theatre and Syracuse Stage. He's written a beautiful reflection on autism and acting for Playbill Magazine (readily available online). I'll leave you with his words:
I put my dichotomies to work for me. It’s about doing the work and being in control so the audience trusts you to lead them, and then being vulnerable and letting the audience see your soul…The challenges make the vulnerability. You need both of them. As an autistic, I have felt vulnerable my entire life—to be vulnerable onstage is no biggie . . . I am so looking forward to getting the chance to show young disabled people that they can represent themselves honestly onstage and tell their own stories.
The National Theatre production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time plays at the Princess of Wales Theatre until November 19. Tickets are $49 - $150 and are available at https://www.mirvish.com/shows/the-curious-incident-of-the-dog-in-the-night-time.