The Olympic Games and Paralympic Games are not the only exciting things happening in the capital this summer. The London 2012 Festival is also taking place and it features a new production of Mark Haddon’s 2003 novel 'The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time'.
Adapted into a play by writer Simon Stephens, the show opened last Thursday at the National Theatre in London, and I was given the chance to see it before its official opening.
Luke Treadway, who you may have seen in the film Attack the Block, plays the lead role of Christopher, a 15-year-old boy who probably has Asperger syndrome. Interestingly, the cast do not just play actual people - they also take on roles such as a talking ATM (automatic teller machine) and items under a bed.
The play is staged in the Cottesloe Theatre, the smallest of the National Theatre’s three spaces. The stage is square with seats arranged around and above all 4 sides, and because it’s so small, wherever you’re sitting you’re very likely to have an excellent view.
The flooring of the stage is very dynamic - I have never seen anything like it! Christopher stands on it, draws on it, has guiding lights appear on it and at one point he even gets under it. It looks amazing and beautiful.
The portrayal of autism in the play is interesting. As many readers of this blog will be very aware, autism can effect sensory perception - particularly if someone is under stress. For people outside the autism world, this is a probably one of the lesser understood and perhaps less obvious effects autism can have on an individual. However, I think the way that the play depicts this experience is ingenious. I could really understand how Christopher was feeling, and I was absolutely delighted to see such a fantastic production – it is funny, clever and poignant.
When Curious (as the National Theatre has styled it – i.e. a shorter version of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time) was first published it was criticised for the way Christopher is portrayed. Some people felt that no single person would have all the traits of autism that Christopher does. Mark Haddon even expressed regret that a mention of Asperger syndrome was printed on the front cover of the book.
To me, this is an interesting discussion, because if you listen carefully to the autism community, while some people say they can’t relate to Christopher, there are plenty of people who say they can, and that they understand him.
As we know, everyone is different and autism affects each individual differently, so I don’t think you can’t say that one person has too many or too few traits. (I imagine this is the same way that neurotypical (non-autistic) people feel about the way they are portrayed in books! They don’t all relate to Wallander, Sherlock Holmes, and Scrooge!)
It’s also important to understand that “traits” can be displayed (present) in many different ways. For example, Christopher hits people when they touch him. This could be because he is hypersensitive to touch and is not able to predict people’s actions (social imagination). Many people who have autism would never hit anyone. Also, since we are different, many of us don’t mind firm touches but we don’t like tickle (gentle) touches.
I don’t think it is bad to have a character who has lots of traits of being on the spectrum, as long as they are portrayed properly and the writer takes responsibility for this. I feel Mark Haddon and the director Marianne Elliot do take responsibly. In fact, it was because Marianne wanted to research autism that I had the opportunity to meet her and Katy Rudd (staff director) to discuss the play and autism. They were very willing to take on board my feedback.
You have to know quite a bit about autism and to have met lots of people on the spectrum to really be able to see how one individual fits into the diagnostic criteria. Nevertheless, as with any work of fiction, it’s important to remember that it is just made up, and as a consequence you cannot always expect people to behave in exactly the way we anticipate.
I think this play provides hope to people, not just through Christopher’s story and the journey he goes through, but also because the play is on at the National Theatre. Other books such as the History Boys (by Alan Bennett) started at the National and have gone on to tour the UK and be made into films, so who knows what will happen next? Nobody knows - we must wait and see!
I’m aware that many of you who live out of London will be reading this and thinking that you wish the production was on closer to you. Well there is good news: on 6 September the play will be beamed via satellite (I presume) to cinemas across the UK. Check out www.ntlive.com to see where it will be on.
There is also a “relaxed performance” on 13 October for anyone on the spectrum or who would be more comfortable in this environment. I think this might be like an autism friendly screening at the cinema but at a theatre.
By the way if any of you are fans of trains there are at least 3 different types in the play.