Sunday, September 9, 2012

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time: NT Live

"A good day" according to Christopher Boone, a 15 year-old on the autism spectrum, involves "projects."  His project is to investigate the mysterious death of a neighbor's dog by a pitchfork.  However, his journey is complicated by his difficulties in interpreting the behavior of those around him.  He uncovers more than he bargains for and it propels him further from his home than he has ever gone before.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time* is adapted from the novel by Mark Haddon by Simon Stephens (Morning, Harper Regan).  Marianne Elliott (War Horse) directs this inventive and immersive production which beautifully and creatively illustrates the distance between the world Christopher lives in full of numbers, facts, star-gazing, and absolute truths ("I never lie," he says and he means it) and the rest of the adult world where we never quite say what we mean, where lies are told, where metaphors abound and where honesty is not always rewarded or understood.  The distance between these two worlds is immense and Christopher attempts to cross that distance gingerly, one foot in front of the other. 

There is much to celebrate in this production.  Frantic Assembly's Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett bring their talents to direct the movement here.  Building space, objects, and furniture out of people, expressing Christopher's emotional experience as he becomes overwhelmed with sights and sounds, and creating the sensation of life on the London Underground it is a rich feast of strong narrative movement.

The set designer Bunny Christie has created a Tron-like space that manages to act as both a digital and analog surface.  Chalk outlines are drawn on the black floor, but points of light also project from the floor to define spaces, show star maps or track Christopher's journey.  Digital text projections are also used.  The show is staged in the round with illuminated benches around the illuminated floor where the actors and props wait to be called upon.  Sound designer Ian Dickinson builds a cacophony of sound layers to represent the oppressive experience that Christopher has when he is confronted by the noise of the world.

I enjoyed the way in which language gets foregrounded in this play.  Because of Christopher's literal understanding of the world people are constantly forced to reexamine how they express themselves to him.  He acts as fascinating mirror reflecting the difference between what we say and what we mean. 

But despite a creative and empathic staging to render the experience of an autistic boy, the story for me fell short in the end.  Act One was moving along fine.  I found Christopher to be compelling character and I enjoyed watching him work to unfold the mystery before him.  Act One gave us a lot of magical thinking--seeing how Christopher thought and felt.  But in Act Two a sentimentalism crept in that for me made the material too local and literal. The show got too manipulative for my liking.  Maybe that old War Horse resistance of mine got kicked up. Things started to drag, the momentum for me faltered in Act Two.

I would like to read the play because there was a meta-layer to the show where Christopher begins to perform his life as a play and I found that to be a curious but not a cohesive element of this production.  It was explicit in the second Act but it cropped up in such a way that made me wonder if I had missed references to it in the first Act.  I found it jarring and as much as I love a bit of meta or a lot of meta (As of 1.52pm GMT), I thought as it was staged here it actually played into this sentimentalism in a way that was unwelcome for me. 

Luke Treadaway, as Christopher, does a great job of creating a character who struggles to express himself emotionally.  When the sea of emotion becomes too much for Christopher, Treadaway managed to communicate that turmoil.  I struggled more with his tutor Siobhan performed by Niamh Cusack.  Cusack's narrator role came across really irritating.  Una Stubbs was delightful as Christopher's neighbor and the ensemble handled a variety of roles along with the dynamic movement very well. 

I think those less resistant to sentimentality would find it moving.   Overall I was impressed with the dynamic production even if I lost interest as it dragged on. 

*It must be said that I am reviewing the filmed version of a play and not a live performance.  It's the first NT Live show I have been to.  I am not sure how this has impacted my viewing and my impressions of the piece.  Filming changes the pacing, the focus and the way in which the material is presented.  I am keenly aware of the shot structure, off-screen versus on-screen choices being made and the use of a overhead camera to capture the full effect of the floor projections etc.  It is not the same experience as seeing live theater.  You have a lot less power as an audience member in the filmed version.  A lot more control belongs to someone else.  That said, as filmed theater goes I thought the direction of the filmed version was quite good.  The cameras were deployed strategically for a show staged in the round and to capture much of the movement.  There were a lot of medium shots of the cast getting you a lot closer to the performance than might be possible from a regular theater seat. I could have done without some of the fades but it gave me the opportunity to see this show I otherwise would have missed when I had to cancel my London trip. 

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