It’s been years since I read Mark Haddon’s novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, but I can still recall the effect it had on me, back when I was an undergraduate in the United Arab Emirates constantly dreaming of sensibilities that a life in Dubai denied me.
The book was gifted to me by one of my best friends, one with whom I shared a deep love and appreciation for works of art – be they visual, cinematic or literary – that managed to detach innocence from ignorance and assert it as a possibility in a world seemingly determined to make its preservation as an ethos and disposition unfeasible, at least for us adults.
I read Haddon’s narrative in one sitting, lying flat on my belly by some hotel pool, completely engrossed in the thoughts of his complex, idiosyncratic, frustrating, charming and hilarious protagonist. It wasn’t long before I was as obsessed as Christopher, an autistic teen with a proclivity for mathematics, with the mystery of who killed his neighbour’s dog – the central plot node around which the novel is spun. And, it didn’t take much to preoccupy my mind with the emotional Rubik’s Cube that seemed to constitute Christopher’s way of understanding and dealing with his parent’s separation, his father’s deceitful cover up of his mother’s departure, his school’s reluctance to let him take more advanced examinations and his overall navigation – physical, social and affective – of day-to-day life.
Upon arriving at London’s Gielgud Theatre to view the theatrical interpretation of the novel with other Ertegun scholars on February 6th, I realised I was quite rusty on the narrative’s details. But it wasn’t long before it came rushing back to me, soon after the spotlight fell on an impaled dog and a perplexed teenage boy.
The set took me completely by surprise. It looked like something out of a sci-fi film – as though we were about to witness a play set in a futuristic alien laboratory and not a quiet English town. Actors peppered the stage, visibly manipulating props and verbally elaborating on aspects of scenes before taking on roles within them, and Christopher’s thoughts were regularly visualised on a large screen. Loud, once again futuristic sound and light effects also punctuated the performance, amplifying and inviting the audience to viscerally experience the feelings of confusion and anxiety that often overwhelmed Christopher.
It was, to me, an imaginative, original and compelling way to realize the internal workings of a mind – and a particularly complex and stimulating mind at that. Things don’t unfold in our minds quite the same way they appear to in the world enveloping us. We have particular, ineffable ways of processing and recalling everything we perceive and sense, of sorting through and internally visualizing thoughts, daydreams, hope for scenarios and potential horrors, and this play does a wonderful job of producing one possible and exceptional manifestation of what that might look like in a particular case. I was absolutely thrilled. It’s rare that an adaptation please let alone pleasantly surprise and shock a dedicated lover of the original.
The only aspect I found slightly disappointing was the performance given by the actor who portrayed Christopher, not because he didn’t do a satisfactory job, but because I had developed such a strong image of and voice for the character in my own head that I suppose I was likely to find any interpretation somewhat disappointing. At the risk of using a cliché, I’ll end by insisting that this play deserve the descriptor ‘magical’.