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The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time: metaphor made into theatrical magic
18 October 2017.


by Drew Rowsome
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Christopher Boone, an autistic boy and the ostensible author of the book The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time on which the play we are about to watch is based, struggles to explain the relentless logical nature of his thinking. He finds, using the phrase "the apple of my eye" as an example, the concept of metaphor to be confusing. He equates it with "lying." And then he equates it with theatre which, after all, is packed with metaphors.

The actual book The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is an extraordinary achievement. Written by poet Mark Haddon in the voice of an autistic boy, the novel transports us inside the mind of the youth with all the attendant disorientation that results. And for a change the reader has to puzzle together the world of the book, try to figure out what is happening, apply metaphor to relentless logic and scattered clues.

The play version attempts to do the same thing. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is set in a confining black box, equalling the way Christopher feels boxed in, and presents the audience with Christopher's narration and, through a dazzling bombardment of light and sound, the overwhelming experience that it his experience. It is an extraordinary theatrical achievement with a set and cast that mutate into innumerable situations, locations and characters. The level of invention is astounding as director Marianne Elliott and designers Bunny Christie, Paule Constable, Finn Ross and Ian Dickinson, use theatrical tricks mechanical, technological and the application of old-fashioned actor sweat, to create visions, worlds and horrors out of stagecraft and human flesh.

The first act consists of the mystery that is the cosmetic plot of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and it proceeds to a shocking revelation. The second act pulls out all the stops to illustrate the results of that revelation. It is harrowing and would be even more so if there were not bits of comedy resulting from how Christopher sees the world, and the reliance on the trope of the saintliness of the differently abled. No one is a hero and no one is a villain but they are all trapped in the impossible situation of Christopher's box. 

Despite the lights and effects and frenetic action, the second half of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is brutally bleak. Perhaps too bleak for an audience out for a night of theatre. So there is a happy faux-ending - done in the most blatantly manipulative way considering what has come before and the title of the play - inserted before the real ending, and a comic reprise added post-curtain call. The former rings horribly false but the audience's sigh of approval and palpable release of tension made the real climax all the more disturbing and thought-provoking. 

It is a very difficult thing that The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is trying to do. Communicate an empathetic idea, show a state of being most would prefer to ignore, while still entertaining and engaging. That the success relies on the metaphors, on a non-literalness, that Christopher disparages, is a heartbreaking and magical irony. The balance between drawing the audience into the world and allowing us to be able to feel safe watching from a distance, peering into the box, is a delicate one. I would have preferred more immersive and risking the alienation and fear - every time the fourth wall was broken I flinched at being wrenched out of the experience - but there were other audience members who were so triggered by what was presented that it was necessary. 

Joshua Jenkins as Christopher Boone gives a performance that is not only totally committed and equally believable in puzzlement and unbridled rage, but also stunningly athletic. The entire cast frequently moves in choreographed chaos that requires split second timing and incredible grace but Jenkins stamina and strength is awe-inspiring. David Michaels and Emma Beattie as the parents fill their flawed characters with immense humanity and express the endless grief and frustration they are feeling without tipping into pathos. Julie Hale has the thankless role of the narrator and the deliverer of reason but she makes a good voice for what Christopher is unable to express. 

The rest of the cast elides from role to role, using small props and endless acting invention to conjure a cast of thousands out of the half dozen they have on hand. The audience befuddlement at seeing the same face slightly altered, echoes Christopher's inability to "chat," be touched, or even make a human connection as we understand it. Matt Wilman demonstrates with a bad boy lout having the same face as a rescuing angel and a frustrated policeman; Amanda Posener takes it to another level with a comic bit as her character morphs before the audience's, and Christopher's, eyes. 

As I ambled back to my seat at intermission, deep in thought about what I had seen and the emotions that had been aroused, I fell in behind a pre-teenage boy and his mother. As their dialogue progressed I realized that he was somewhere on the autistic scale and was processing the play in an entirely different way. He was processing without metaphor and was only concerned with the fact that the length of the play was going to interfere with the regimen of his dinner schedule. The infinite patience, embarrassment, suppressed rage and weariness of the mother was to become the subject of the second half of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and I hope that knowing that her state of mind was being shared as well as Christopher's, gave her some validation. Though it was only metaphor, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time was horribly, wonderfully, moving.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time continues until Sun, Nov 19 at the Princess of Wales Theatre, 300 King St W. mirvish.com

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