Matt Baker on Curious Incident

Review by Matt Baker

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, an ATC Production; written Mark Haddon, adpt Simon Stephens; dir. Sarah Brodie. Production Photographs Michael Smith

[Killed the Cat]

EDITOR: Auckland Theatre Company’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time has completely sold out its run at the Q theatre, which is a remarkable achievement for the company. This follows their run of To Kill a Mockingbird at the Civic Theatre earlier in the year, which was their most successful drama, beating the record for their 12 Angry Men set way back in 1998. It bodes well for the opening of the much larger waterfront theatre in October. Nathan Joe reviewed Curious for Theatre Scenes, and I also wrote on it for Metro Magazine. Matt Baker was also moved to record an alternative perspective on ATC’s production. This is an unsolicited review.

Adaptation is the key to survival. When a playwright decides to adapt a literary success, one hopes that it is due to the fact that they see a theatricality inherent in the work that such an adaptation could draw upon and engage with in an original way due to the new medium. Earlier this year, Auckland Theatre Company had a record-breaker in ticket sales with their production of Christopher Sergel’s theatrical adaptation of Harper Lee’s novel To Kill A Mockingbird (though box office records were not specified as being either numerical or statistical when noting the season’s length and comparing the house size of The Maidment to The Civic). Regardless, financial fortune does not insinuate artistic accomplishment. While Simon Stephens’ stage adaptation of Mark Haddon’s novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time suffers from the same fundamental problem as To Kill A Mockingbird – that the dramatic narrative structure of literary prose is not the same as the dramatic narrative structure of theatrical plot – Curious compensates by providing theatricality at the opposite end of the spectrum.

Winner of seven Laurence Olivier Awards and five Tony Awards, not one of these was for the script, which remains more or less identical in textual composition to the book, yet six were for production qualities (lighting, set, sound, and projection). Theatrical plot requires a sequence of events that come out of necessity and probability, which increase in complexity until a moment of reversal of fortune or character discovery unties the knot that has been made. However, this increase must be encompassed within an overarching theme; a singular truth with which the writer wants to leave us. Without it, the sense of completeness in the story is lost, because there is no kernel to the idea, no singularity to the event.

Christopher Boone operates on an unspecified degree of the autistic spectrum. Following the eponymous murder of his neighbour’s dog, Christopher begins an investigation that will eventually unravel the questions in his life he’s never before needed to ask. Once Christopher’s father, Ed, simply tells us who the perpetrator of the titular incident is (a moment to which his character arrives out of no immediate conflict or necessity within the scene), a narrative displacement occurs as the play shifts from a “whodunit” to “a character seeking another” (and eventually an “attempt to achieve the ultimate boon”). Eventually, the play leaves us with a literal question, but without an extremity in spectacle design, we haven’t truly seen the world through Christopher’s eyes. The concept is never accurately seeded, so no pathos or catharsis is capable.

As the protagonist, Christopher’s actions as a character in terms of motivation are easy to accept from an objective perspective due to his explanation of them, even if we ourselves do not align with his logic. The consequence of this, however, is that his world is clinical and, at times, emotionally detached. When we read his words in the first person, we are literally associating ourselves with his perspective; on stage this simply becomes what we’re told, which is why Stephens employs such a strong spectacle component.

The joy and wonderment of this play comes from how we see how Christopher sees the world. Without this element, the show remains impersonal. Both John Verryt’s set design and Jo Kilgour’s lighting design, while aesthetically pleasing and true to the clinical nature of Christopher’s mind, is a stark reminder of how limited our theatre is in regards to production expenditure, a point which is reinforced when watching the trailer of The National Theatre’s production. When a 72 second video clip is more charged than two and half hours of live theatre, the latter is not working. And if you’re going to use a live a dog in a play, don’t use an obviously fake one as well.

The only life that exists in this production is due to the intensity and savagery of Thomas Press’ sound design during the train station sequence, but it is only one facet (and a commonly presented one at that) of life on the autistic spectrum. The AV component, like the intricacy required of the set, is a mandatory component, but Tim Gruchy’s design needed more time in the theatre before opening night and a sharper eye to detail – four is not a prime number.

With no ability for the audience to truly engage with Christopher at his level, and without the grandeur of the spectacle elements, the intimacy that comes in the domestic scenes does not have a great enough contrast to draw us in, and the supporting roles swing wildly between an inability to react beyond our down-under naturalistic acting style and chewing the scenery when attempting to employ the meta-theatrical awareness of the play.

The choreographic component to previous productions has been acknowledged, yet Sara Brodie’s direction is limited due to both ironically confining the play by staging it in the round, and our general lack of physicality in our work. The technical execution is clearly at the forefront of the ensemble’s mind, and they operate like a well-oiled machine, however, it comes at the cost of emotional content, accent work, and strong choices for the more supportive non-stereotypical characters.

What a character says about another is not always true. In fact, it’s far more interesting when it’s not, because it tells us more about the relationship between the speaker and the subject. This is where the difficulty in navigating character arises for the actor (and/or director), as they must decide which descriptive characteristics to prescribe. We’re told by Christopher’s mother, Judy, that Ed is a patient man – and that’s exactly what we’re shown. While not an erroneous choice, it bleeds into the rest of Wesley Dowdell’s performance, softening the edges of a man who requires a violent streak.

While Haddon has done little to adapt the text from a literary Bildungsroman to a theatrical coming-of-age, the central formation and education of the protagonist at the heart of this play requires a great deal more than Auckland theatre can financially provide its audiences (though a trip to Christchurch could be worth it), resulting in a production that cannot equal the sum of the its parts, because the parts themselves simply do not provide more than their means. Hopefully, while not requiring the same degree of adaptation due to its filmic origins, Auckland Theatre Company’s inaugural ASB Waterfront Theatre production should more than compensate for these prior losses in literary translation.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time is presented by Auckland Theatre Company and plays at Q until 14 August. Details see ATC

SEE ALSO: Theatreview.org.nz review by Dione Joseph;  Metro Magazine review by James Wenley and Theatre Scenes review by Nathan Joe

 

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8 Comments on Matt Baker on Curious Incident

  1. “Once Christopher’s father, Ed, simply tells us who the perpetrator of the titular incident is (a moment to which his character arrives out of no immediate conflict or necessity within the scene) …”

    I beg to differ. The HUGE issue of Ed’s hiding the letters Christopher’s mother had written to her son has caused Christopher to withdraw completely from his father – so Ed has to do something to regain his trust. This, in the book, is as it plays out on stage:
    And Father was silent for a really long time. Then he said, “Look, maybe I shouldn’t say this, but. . . I want you to know that you can trust me. And. . . OK, maybe I don’t tell the truth all the time. God knows, I try, Christopher, God knows I do, but. . . Life is difficult, you know. It’s bloody hard telling the truth all the time. Sometimes it’s impossible. And I want you to know that I’m trying, I really am. And perhaps this is not a very good time to say this, and I know you’re not going to like it, but. . . You have to know that I am going to tell you the truth from now on. About everything. Because. . . if you don’t tell the truth now, then later on. . . later on it hurts even more. So. . .” Father rubbed his face with his hands and pulled his chin down with his fingers and stared at the wall. I could see him out of the corner of my eye. And he said, “I killed Wellington, Christopher.”

  2. Matt, this review had me scratching my head and muttering “but, but….” “When a 72 second video clip is more charged than two and half hours of live theatre, the latter is not working.” It isn’t hard for a 72 second video clip to be more charged – it’s 72 seconds long, it’s video, and it’s been edited. The comparison is slightly ridiculous. “The only life that exists in this production is due to the intensity and savagery of Thomas Press’ sound design during the train station sequence..” Big call, and to my mind only slightly more persuasive if you exclude the fine and touching central performance – which you do. Tim Earl doesn’t get a mention. “The central formation and education of the protagonist at the heart of this play requires a great deal more than Auckland theatre can financially provide its audiences”. So it’s all about the whizziness of the special effects and the sadly lacking “grandeur of the spectacle elements” . Your fellow critic, James Wenley, also finds the AV component lacking but suggests ditching it completely in favour of good old ensemble story-telling. I’d put my money on actors over an AV budget. But that said, I suspect there was more ‘spectacle’ to be had (and more sense in the in the round staging) when viewed from the Gods rather than the A reserve rows in the main seating blocks. For once the reviewers really didn’t get the best seats. “financial fortune does not insinuate artistic accomplishment.” Which is a high falutin way of saying just because it’s selling out doesn’t mean it’s any good. Because… what would the public know? They probably haven’t seen the National Theatre production. Or even that 72 second clip. What “financial fortune” does insinuate is that word of mouth is probably pretty favourable. “If you’re going to use a live dog in a play, don’t use an obviously fake one as well.” Unless perhaps the obviously fake one is meant to be dead and is on stage for a few brief seconds and the audience knows it isn’t real and doesn’t care because… it’s theatre.

    • Hi Roy,

      Thanks for your feedback.

      My point was that in viewing the video footage retrospective of seeing the production, I saw the degree to which another company could provide the spectacle component, and the emotional content of the show, which had been lacking when I saw it, came flooding to me. I am not suggesting more money definitively means better spectacle, simply that this felt like a cheap version of someone else’s production.

      Tim does indeed do a “fine” job. I simply didn’t feel compelled to write about his performance.

      I would put my money on actors over an AV budget as well, but, going back to the focus of my entire review, I do not believe this show provides its actors with much to work. It relies predominantly on the spectacle component; whizziness and special effects as you say, because it’s not a play, it’s a book on stage. I think I would be bored to tears if it was ditched completely and that script was left to the (any) actors.

      Very interesting point regarding the seating! I had friends who watched from the Gods and they said it felt very intimate.

      Now you’re putting words in my mouth. The public know what they know and like what they like. Correct, they probably haven’t seen the National Theatre production, but that doesn’t mean I can’t draw upon any of the resources available to me to inform (and bolster) my opinion as best I can, does it?

      My point regarding the dead dog was that it was so painfully fake. It wasn’t on stage for a few brief seconds. It was there for the entire opening scene. It looked ridiculous. Any sentence that suggests an audience doesn’t care because it’s theatre is extremely worrying to me.

  3. Well, for the record I (sitting aloft, opposite the A Reserve bank) empathised constantly with all the central characters. And to neglect to mention the achievement or otherwise of an actor in a hugely demanding central role is surely an abnegation of a key responsibility in critiquing.

  4. Matt – I found your review a blessed relief. A tired, unoriginal production. Here’s to you continuing to call it as you see it, and getting under their skin.

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