The National Theatre’s production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, currently playing at the Arts Centre Melbourne with MTC, is a lauded adaptation of Mark Haddon’s debut novel, of the same title. Haddon’s book was published to much acclaim in 2003. Its literary innovation is in part due to the author’s dead-pan characterisation of the internal monologue of 15-year-old protagonist, Christopher Boone, whom the reader is led to assume is neurologically atypical.
Publicity for the novel referred to the young protagonist, Christopher, as having Asperger’s Syndrome, something that in hindsight, the author “slightly regrets”. Rather, Haddon insists that The Curious Incident is “a novel about difference, about being an outsider, about seeing the world in a surprising and revealing way”.
The novel was adapted by British playwright, Simon Stephens, known for his inventive dramatization of bleak social realities, and ability to theatricalise inner-monologues. Stephens’s adaptation is faithful to Haddon’s novel – it shows Christopher’s love of mathematics, his instinctive recoiling from human touch, insistence on the truth, and unbridled capacity for memorising detail.
The direction, by Marianne Elliott, emphasises elements of humour, creating characters that seem larger than life. It is a very affirmative interpretation, and at times is deeply sentimental.
The hi-tech set, which stands in for Christopher’s inner-world, is impressive. The walls and floor are overlaid with perfect grids, an expression of the “infinite” in mathematical thought. In the centre, lies the taxidermied body of a Golden Retriever with a garden fork wedged through its torso; the dog’s wound is denoted by a dark, glittery stain.
The play runs for approximately two and a half hours, and is divided into two parts. It opens with Christopher’s discovery of the dead dog. The puzzle of the pet’s grisly demise provides the whodunnit crime narrative structure, which informs its dramatic arc. An ensemble cast of ten actors, all adept physical performers, plays multiple roles, including neighbourhood characters, commuters, policemen and a station guard.
The first part follows Christopher (Joshua Jenkins) as he investigates the dog’s death. Inspired by Sherlock Holmes, he surmises that the crime is performed by someone “known to the victim”. The dog, Wellington, belongs to a neighbour, Mrs Shears (Amanda Posener), whom we later learn has been in a relationship with Christopher’s father, Ed (David Michaels).
The second part details the events of Christopher’s perilous train journey from Swindon to London, to escape his father, and find his mother. On his way, he stops off at school and discovers Siobhan wants to make his detective novel into a school play.
“I don’t like acting, it’s a kind of lie”, responds Christopher. This is the one intervention Stephens makes into the book’s narrative, a kind of humorous allusion to the form of “a play within a play”.
The play demands high-octane performances of the ensemble cast, especially Joshua Jenkins as Christopher, who is present for its entire duration. Jenkins’s delivery is expressive and energised, but a far-cry from the “dead-pan” delivery and granular vision indicative of the novel’s characterisation of Christopher.
The play concludes with a triumphant Christopher who makes a list of his achievements: He solved a murder, wrote a book, caught a train to London, found his mother and blitzed his A-level maths exam. He turns to Siobhan and asks a difficult question, “that means I can do anything, doesn’t it”?
There is a long, silent, pause as Siobhan, looking slightly downcast, considers her answer. She turns, inhales, preparing to speak, but is cut short when the lights go out.
Of all the spectacular moments in The Curious Incident – the high-tech lights, projection, sound, impeccable choreography – it is this tiny moment, showing Siobhan captive to doubt, which truly sticks.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is at Arts Centre Melbourne, Playhouse until February 25.