My daughter and I went to see the National Theatre’s production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time at the Sheffield Lyceum last night. I read the book soon after it was published in 2003 and my daughter stormed through a copy she found in our Irish holiday cottage in 2007. It was, we agreed, a book we believed in.
I don’t like losing books to stage or screen. My favourite elements of fiction – landscape and weather – are particularly challenging to translate to the stage so I worry about these. And I can become so involved with characters on the page that my imagination cannot accommodate an alternative interpretation. Then there is the language; at the cinema the previous evening I had been critical of a film of a short story, speculating that it was this which had been lost in translation. How could a director possibly move Christopher’s world to the stage, I mused? So it was with some trepidation (and gentle persuasion from my daughter) that I bought two tickets for Curious Incident late yesterday afternoon.
I need not have feared; it is a very good production. The play (by Simon Stephens) makes fantastic use of a ‘black box’ set onto which is projected the sound, light, patterns and numbers which fill Christopher’s head. There were moments in the evening when I felt flashes of the chaos and confusion which I imagine Dylan must sometimes feel: scenes on the London underground and in the city but also experiences in the apparently ‘safe’ environments of home and school.
A gesture which Christopher’s mother and father use with him when he is anxious (which I hadn’t remembered from the book) is to hold out a hand, fingers spread, to make brief but reassuring contact. I found this very moving. Afterwards I reflected to my daughter that I could learn from this; that when I saw Dylan at the weekend I wouldn’t try to hug him. ‘But Dylan likes touch’, my daughter observed. ‘I don’t think you should stop.’ As Mark Haddon (the author of Curious Incident) and Simon Baron-Cohen write in the programme notes, autism affects individuals in different ways.
Haddon, apparently, regrets that the term ‘Asperger’s Syndrome’ was used on the original cover of his book. He dislikes the ‘diagnostic medical language’ of the phrase and prefers Christopher’s own description of himself as ‘someone who has Behavioural Problems’. Although we witness Christopher (convincingly and sensitively played by Joshua Jenkins) experiencing such problems, it is the moments of joy and beauty that have stayed with me today. The production used dance drama and mime to create tableaux of alternative states of mind and experience – to represent Christopher’s relationship with space and number for example – to wonderful effect. It was at these times, rather than in the flashes of chaos and breakdown, that I felt most truly inside Christopher’s head.
Of course I sat through much of the production thinking about Dylan. Because Curious Incident adopts Christopher’s perspective, this was mostly with a sense of affirmation. Still, there were difficult moments for me. I didn’t mind when Christopher (who has savant number skills) observed that the other pupils at his special school were ‘stupid’ – but I did mind that the audience laughed. They are laughing at Dylan, I thought to myself. They are stupid. But more often I was struck by the positive way I felt Dylan with me in the theatre, his presence implied in Christopher’s every movement on stage. When cast members lifted Joshua Jenkins high in the air and sideways, for example, so that his feet walked the walls of the set as if he were floating, it was Dylan I saw.
Was it then I wiped away a tear? Maybe. Or perhaps nearer the end when Christopher, hearing that he has passed his A Level maths, declares ‘I can do anything’. At that moment Christopher’s achievement – the progress he had made in the course of the play – seemed no more nor less to me than that which Dylan has made in getting to where he is now. In so far as The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is a story of courage in overcoming challenges, and of finding a place in the world, it is about Dylan’s journey too. As Haddon reflects in the programme note: ‘Curious is not really about Christopher at all. It’s about us.’
Being at the theatre had drawn me powerfully into Dylan’s world and one of the things which had been hard for me to witness was the impact on Christopher of separation from his mother. I drove home afterwards with a sense of urgency; there was something I needed to do.
“Hello it’s Liz. Dylan’s mum. How is he tonight? Could you give him my love?”