What if we were brought into the autistic mindset?
Obviously, such a feat is not going to be feasible until a few more leaps in technology down the line (get working on it, Apple), but until then, we shall make do with the theatrical production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.
Based on the best-selling novel by Mark Haddon and adapted for the stage by Simon Stephens, the story follows Christopher Boone, a fifteen year-old boy suggested (but never outright stated) to have autism. One night, Christopher comes across the body of a neighbour’s dog, brutally impaled by a garden fork. With a closer empathy to humans rather than dogs, Christopher plans to solve the mystery of the dog’s murder, forcing him out of his comfort zone and into the big, wide world.
Now, perhaps the story’s biggest fact that everybody will pick up on is the depiction of autism. Normally, you’d be relying on the performances to deliver the characterization, but here, the set design is as much a depiction as the actors themselves. Diagrams are displayed on a blackboard depicting and explaining Christopher’s (mis)understanding of facial tics, how he sees the world, applying a map of stars or a series of houses to his own logic. Christopher’s dreams of becoming an anstronaut are depicted through some superb choreography from the supporting cast and mild, but visually impressive acrobatics. The stage is not so much as stage as it is a portal into Christopher’s eccentric brain and even during the moments when Christopher’s behavior may perplex us (which are quite frequent), we are never too far from understanding where he’s coming from and what makes him tick.
The set design’s greatest achievement comes during the second act when Christopher takes a trip through London’s public transport. Having never travelled by train before, Christopher is unaccustomed to the frantic comings and goings and all the audio sensations you get from a passing train. The geography of stations and screeching of trains overwhelms Christopher and very likely the entire audience could feel his pain. As an autistic who struggles with sensory overload myself, I have never seen sensory overload depicted quite so visually or vividly in any medium and would recommend the play solely on its depiction of this overwhelming, but often misunderstood trait.
But we should not forget the actors. Scott Reid gave a tour-de-force performance as Christopher, his dialogue is delivered with precision evident from excessive routine following mixed with a growing uncertainty as he interacts with the unfamiliar. Most significantly, rather than play up traits painting the stereotypical autistic, Reid has such a captivating presence that he gives Christopher a strong individuality with his own quirks, such as his distaste for the colours yellow and brown, his empathy for dogs, and his observations of the outside world so that even though his (presumed) autism is a defining behavioural trait, it is being filtered through a unique viewpoint.
Credit also has to be given to David Michaels, who plays Christopher’s long-suffering father Ed. Struggling to raise an autistic child single-handedly is no easy feat, and you really feel for Ed as he tries to provide the best possible life for his son even when all odds seem stacked against him. The moments when it looks as though Ed is about to come undone provide some of the play’s saddest and equally tense moments.
Perhaps the play’s most poignant moment is when Christopher and his father Ed are stood side by side watching the rain fall. Christopher mentions how he likes watching the rain, gazing longingly at it, with Ed looking in Christopher’s direction to see what fascinates his son so. The incomprehensive leads to a complete silence, the theatrical equivalent of a tumbleweed moment. But the prolonged silence and subdued acting from Scott Reid and David Michaels turned what could have easily been comedic into something much more poignant, a father struggling to emotionally connect with his son, as the two characters look in the same direction, but without necessarily seeing the same thing. The scene would resonate for any parent who has struggled with that emotional disconnect from their autistic child. If I had my way, Reid and Michaels would be nominated for every acting award the theatre medium can offer.
The typical autism story often focuses on a ‘normal’ (a term I use very loosely) individual learning about the condition via an autistic character. Here, Christopher’s role as the protagonist and subsequent POV character place the condition front and centre, as we are invited into Christopher’s world bound by its own form of logic. The portrayal has all to frequently been the equivalent of looking through a window from the outside of a house, so to reverse the viewpoint provides a welcoming fresh.
Now as mentioned earlier, the play doesn’t outright state that Christopher has autism – trust me, I was listening out for that namedrop that never came. The book’s author Haddon originally stated that he didn’t want Christopher to be labeled, an issue all too frequent in today’s world. But I believe that because autism has attracted as much notability as it has in today’s society, the traits and the condition are much more recognizable to people. I think if the play and the story had been produced three decades earlier, it would have been a necessity to include the word lest you end up with an audience of scratching heads.
Now, there is no ideal depiction of autism. Every time you see autism or any other hidden condition portrayed onscreen, you’re seeing A depiction, not necessarily THE depiction. Because THE depiction doesn’t exist. Everyone is so diverse and different it is impossible to pin down an exact idea. But if we were talking about the best portrayal of autism, that would be another story. And I think I can safely say The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time stands up there with the best of them.
Final Rating: 5/5 stars