A review of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Elena Maria Piech
The incredibly minimal, high-tech, and transformative stage design of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time enables audience members to step into the mind of Christopher Boone, a teenage boy who has autism. Although neither the book or the play adaptation of The Curious Incident specifically label the main character’s intellectual disability, medical professionals who have analyzed Christopher’s thought processes and social interactions diagnose him as having Asperger’s Syndrome. What makes The Curious Incident memorable is the way Christopher’s autism is portrayed on stage. Audiences are not just watching a play about a boy trying to figure out who murdered a dog in the night-time, they get to experience what it might be like to think and view events as Christopher does.
Christopher loves to study science and mathematics. By age 15, Christopher is already prepared to take is A-level for math. Despite his understandings for numbers, the young protagonist has a harder time reading social interactions. He does not like to be touched and when people talk to him, he would prefer for them to avoid figures of speech and instead speak very literally. Instead of creating a stage filled with multiple props and set changes, the entire production unfolds in a white cube with grid markings. Depending on the scene, certain objects will light up, pop out, or completely transform. Sometimes members of the ensemble will be used as props, other times an apparently flat wall will become a ladder for Christopher to climb. Bunny Christie is the one to thank for this innovative stage design. Previous credits by Christie include other productions with the National Theatre, Donmar Warehouse, the Royal Shakespeare Company, and several other plays on London’s West End.
Christie’s stage design advances the story and creates more empathy and understanding toward Christopher. As Andrzej Lukowski positively wrote in a Time Out London review of The Curious Incident, “Bunny Christie’s design was neat at the intimate Cottesloe, but blown up for a big stage it’s awe-inspiring, her huge mathematical grid set flaring with life at every turn: maps, cities, trains, constellations – the wondrous strange workings of Christopher’s mind, pumped into something exhilarating by Adrian Sutton’s electronic score.”
One moment where the stage design works perfectly to interpret Christopher’s experience is the scene where Christopher heads to the train station to travel from Swindon to London. For a person without an intellectual or development disability, taking the train seems like a thoughtless occurrence. But for Christopher, the combination of moving crowds, flashing signs, and loud noises cause him to go into a paroxysm where he crouches, covers his ears, and yells into the floor. Since the stage is setup to process events in the way Christopher would experience them, the white cubicle constantly flashes different train signs and the sounds of train doors and talking crowds are pumped up to loud decibels. The entire sequence enables audiences to have a slightly better understanding of what it might be like to experience a sensory overload. As Alexis Soloski justly describes in a review from The Guardian, “these sections are gripping and forceful.”
In addition to the set design and staging, Graham Butler does an exceedingly honest and wonderful job at portraying the teenage boy with high-functioning autism. Luke Treadaway was the first actor to play Christopher when the play was at the Royal National Theatre’s Cottesloe Theatre in 2012. In 2014 the production moved to the Gielgud Theatre in London’s West End, and now Butler plays the protagonist. Originally Charles Spencer wrote a review in the The Telegraph to describe Treadaway. Spencer’s description can still be used as an accurate depiction for Butler’s performance. Spencer wrote “he is unbearably poignant in moments of distress when he kneels with his face on the ground and moans, but also movingly captures the character’s courage, his brilliance at mathematics, and his startling perspectives on the world.”
The portrayal of Christopher and his surroundings is what makes this performance memorable. This production further pushes the discourse on the disability rights movement. After all, a person with an intellectual disability might just think differently than a person without one. As Doug Patterson wrote in How Do You Make Social Change?, “all theatre effects social change. By ignoring, celebrating, analyzing damming, reinforcing, representing, misrepresenting, advocating, resisting, encouraging, or being blind and deaf to social change, all theatre has an impact on the flow of social movement and interaction, collectively and personally.” The Curious Incident creates positive social change. The production does this with both its staging and acting. This moving and emotional-experience is not one to miss.