There's a delicate moment in the National Theatre's production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, a momentary pause during the compelling discoveries of its narrative and the barrelling adventure of its stagecraft. Christopher, our 15-year-old protagonist, stands outside with his father watching the rain splash down around them, a design of projected white streaks that explode on the ground like tiny starbursts.
Christopher’s understanding of the phenomenon is characteristically concrete, but his expression curves close to poetry. Watching water that has evaporated “somewhere in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico”, he anticipates its passage through gutters and treatment centres, soon to be reabsorbed into a river to “go back into the ocean again”. It’s a neat encapsulation of eternal cycles of voyage and return, and the look on his father’s face tells you he would hug his son for it. But Christopher – uncomfortable with emotion, intimacy and people – would never allow it. He keeps his eyes firmly on the sky.
In Mark Haddon’s phenomenal novel from 2003, the world is presented though Christopher’s idiosyncratic, first-person perspective. In Simon Stephens’s award-strewn theatre adaptation, Christopher becomes a figure more seen than seeing, an amateur detective investigating the grisly killing of a dog, Wellington, who stumbles into a more sprawling personal mystery. Christopher inspires a tide of empathy from others, made more poignant by the fact that he can’t return it.
When a performance of Marianne Eliott’s energetic production finished in the Bristol Hippodrome, the response went beyond the enthusiasm afforded to a charming show; it felt as impassioned as a tight embrace, projecting all kinds of unresolved emotion on Christopher. Though the story is often celebrated for its compassionate understanding of Asperger’s Syndrome (much to Haddon’s dismay, whose book never uses the term), Christopher is considerably more than a condition.
Joshua Jenkins, the actor who plays him in the National Theatre's touring production, admitted such investment could be startling, likening it to the magnetic hold of the novel The Catcher in the Rye. "You're really deep into this person's mind," he tells me. "That's why people love the book. They can see themselves in it, their family, their friends. To say it was a book or a play about autism would be such an injustice. It's so much more than that. It's about all of us."
A few weeks later in Dublin, the playwright Simon Stephens was as animated when discussing the play, springing forward in his seat, laughing frequently and with game self-deprecation, but slow to admit to any particular debt of care.
It seemed like a particular challenge to a playwright to take a character so economical with expression and place him centre stage. Christopher can't abide metaphor or ambiguity, for instance, which are the stock and trade of theatre. "Yes, but nor does he exist," says Stephens, contentedly. It's a fair point. It also says much about Stephens' sense of the theatre, which has stayed as alert to the potential of the imagination as the grounding apparatus of the theatre. "While I felt protective, I felt protective of Mark," says Stephens, a friend of the author's who Haddon invited to have a crack at adapting Curious Incident.
Working below the radar of a commission, and the expectations that go with it, neither knew if it would work out. "I wanted the right to fail, actually," says Stephens. "I wanted the right to f*ck it up, because I'd never done an adaptation before and I had a hunch that a) adaptation in itself might be difficult and b) this particular novel might be really difficult. Because Mark was a mate, I felt quite sanguine about ringing him up to say, 'You know this great unadaptable novel of yours? Well, guess what?'"
Instead, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night- Time has become Stephens's most critically and commercially successful work to date, opening at the National's Cottesloe Theatre in 2012, transferring to the West End the following year and Broadway the next (it is still playing in both cities), scooping up both the Olivier and Tony awards for Best New Play in the meantime.
To those familiar with Stephens's dark and expansive oeuvre, the Stockport-born writer and frequent collaborator with directors Sean Holmes, Katie Mitchell, Sebastian Nübling and Ivo Van Hove, was not the most obvious candidate to handle a mainstream family-friendly production based on a much-loved novel.
"The amount of children I've killed in my plays," he pondered earlier this year during a Dublin visit with his play Sea Wall. "I've written about 24 plays and all of them revolve around the murder or accidental death of a child." It was a typically wry exaggeration, but he spoke sincerely about the playwright's impetus to measure, as he put it, the dark between two stars: "When we tell stories, we interrogate our deepest fears in order to take ownership of them, in order to make sense of them."
Looking at Curious Incident from the distance of an auditorium is to better appreciate, among its pleasures and triumphs, a vision of betrayal, abandonment and self-reliance in a chaotic world. "For me Curious Incident, the novel, is not defined by an unalloyed sentimental gesture of celebration of optimism," he says.
Stephens wrote with a new audience in mind, though. "I can't take my eight-year-old daughter to see Three Kingdoms," he says, referring to another play, a cause célèbre more reflective of his pungent subjects and off-the-wall European collaborations. "But I wanted to share my work with them. I wanted to make an evening of theatre that they could come to.
“I talk all the time of how I want to protect myself from pressure. In a way, I put myself under the greatest pressure possible. I was writing something for my friend, out of something that he loved, and then something for my children. It does leave you with a duty of care.”
Mulling and research
Words come easily to Stephens, in both his conversation and his work. (At one point he apologises, hilariously, “I went to an English school in the 1980s, so my grammatical lexicon is really flimsy.”) He tends to write quickly, after a carefully defined period of mulling and research.
"The writing works best when it's really speedy because then I can riff within the structures that I've planned." He's also refreshingly unpretentious about the writer's position as theatrical collaborator, rather than godhead. "It's in the etymology of my job title: I'm not a writer, I'm a wright. The plays haven't been written, they've been wrought. For me my function is not to create a piece of literature which is considered and revered. To me it's the initiating gesture towards a live experience."
That's where Stephens meets Haddon head-on in Curious Incident. If the novel draws attention to its form, with Christopher as its implied author, Stephens similarly makes his stage adaptation a play within a play, with Christopher sceptically aware of the performance. ("You're too old to be a policeman," he tells one actor.)
“In Mark’s books, reading is always a dignifying process. For someone like Christopher, who doesn’t like metaphors, his sense of self is defined by metaphors. Central to Mark’s thinking is that it’s possible to communicate one’s sense of self to another through the symbolic gesture of writing and reading. I adore that.”
The stage, in Stephens’ rough-hewn philosophy, might have the same ennobling effect. “I mean, the humanness of theatre is always something I’ve intuitively cherished. But for the start of my professional career, I was very conscious I was living in a conservative, arcane artform that nobody was really interested in.”
If he’s inclined to see it now as a radical space, it is because it strikes him as a last refuge from the distractions of technology: “The theatre has become a radical art form without changing,” he says, with the surging rhetoric of a student philosopher and the heavy chuckle of someone prone to audacious overstatement. (“I’m convinced about this,” he says while riffing donnishly on another subject, before adding, “Sorry, I’m convinced about it, without really thinking about it.”)
Tall stories make for good listening. One of Stephens's proud inventions in his Curious Incident serves as a modest defence of metaphor – or lies, as Christopher would have it: "You like your Sherlock Holmes stories and you know they're not true. Sometimes people can find things that are true in things that are made up."
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time runs from Oct 6-10 in Bord Gáis Energy Theatre as part of the Dublin Theatre Festival (Sep 24 - Oct 11)