Putting sparks into an autistic teen's mind

Joshua Jenkins plays Christopher Boone, who turns detective to clear his name in The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-time.
Joshua Jenkins plays Christopher Boone, who turns detective to clear his name in The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-time.PHOTO: BRINKHOFF MOGENBERG

Sets crackle with electricity when the protagonist of The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-time is upset

When his friend asked him to adapt an "unstageable" book for the theatre, playwright Simon Stephens accepted the challenge.

The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-time, created for the National Theatre in London, went on to win seven Olivier awards and a Tony for Best Play.

It runs at the Esplanade Theatre from tomorrow until April 8 and is jointly presented by Singapore Repertory Theatre (SRT) and Esplanade - Theatres on the Bay.

The original book of the same title was a charming novel about an autistic teenager, Christopher Boone, who turns detective to clear his name after a neighbour's dog is found dead. The title is a reference to a line spoken by famous literary detective Sherlock Holmes.

The novel was published in 2003 and won 17 literary awards in various countries, including the Whitbread Book of the Year award (now known as the Costa Book of the Year). It has been translated into 44 languages and sold more than 5.5 million copies worldwide.

Author Mark Haddon reportedly refused numerous offers to adapt his book, until he and Stephens became friends "over the coffee machine" at the National Theatre Studio, where both were doing a residency.

Stephens says via e-mail: "I think he wanted somebody who would avoid the play seeming sentimental and he thought that my heart of darkness was perfect for that."

  • BOOK IT / NATIONAL THEATRE'S THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME

    WHERE: Esplanade Theatre, 1 Esplanade Drive

    WHEN: Tomorrow to April 8; 8pm (Tuesdays to Fridays); 3 and 8pm (Saturdays); 2 and 7pm (Sundays); additional 3pm matinee on April 4 for large school groups

    ADMISSION: $48 to $138 from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to www.sistic.com.sg)

Among the 47-year-old playwright's well-known works are Sea Wall (2008), a monologue about the death of a child; and Punk Rock (2009), an edgy exploration of tense adolescents on the cusp of extreme violence.

Haddon's concern about adapting the book also stemmed from its style. The novel is narrated in the first person. How could theatregoers be similarly brought into Christopher's mind?

Easily, according to Stephens. To him, a novel is about ideas, memories and observation and a playwright "deals with these things through the prism of behaviour".

"Mark's thinking and feeling and ideas are rich and distracting. I don't think he realised how much his book is rich in behaviour and, through that, drama. That was what I looked for and what I built my play around."

Director Marianne Elliott and set designer Bunny Christie bring the character's mind to visual life through sets that go awry or crackle with electricity whenever Christopher (played by Joshua Jenkins) is upset. Lights are too bright, sound too loud and the world tilts.

However, the April 8 matinee performance will be a relaxed presentation, meant for audiences with special needs. Strobes and flashing lights will be removed and loud noises reduced. It is expected that viewers will move around and parts of the foyer at the Esplanade Theatre will be available as a quiet space to relax for those who need to leave and re-enter during the show.

Haddon has seen the stage adaptation a few times, to Stephens' great satisfaction.

"He said when I started the job that he had fallen out of love with his story because its great success meant he was asked about it again and again.

"After hearing a read through and watching the play in preview, he said that he had fallen back in love with it again. That meant the world to me.

"In the end, this was why I wanted to make the adaptation. So Mark could fall in love with it again."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 28, 2018, with the headline 'Putting sparks into an autistic teen's mind'. Print Edition | Subscribe