The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time won seven Olivier awards on Sunday night, including Best New Play.
If you’ve seen Curious Incident, which transferred from the National Theatre to the West End’s Apollo Theatre earlier this year, you may not have been too surprised. But how does a bestselling novel transform into an award-winning West End show? A couple of weeks ago, Bloomsbury Institute hosted a talk between author Mark Haddon and acclaimed playwright Simon Stephens, who adapted Haddon’s novel for the stage. AYT’s Becky Brewis reports.
“It was like looking at it through frosted glass”, Haddon said, on the process of having his work adapted, and emphasised the importance of distance. “One of the things I was really hoping for was to sit in the theatre on the first night and have the book returned to me. And, amazingly, that’s what happened.” Fans of the novel will no doubt feel similarly. But although Haddon has written a number of plays, he says he wouldn’t have had the distance necessary to adapt the work himself. When asked why he didn’t cut out the middle man by chair Geoffrey Colman, Head of Acting at Central School of Speech and Drama, he answered: “for the same reasons surgeons don’t operate on their own children […] you need to approach it clinically.”
Stephens and Haddon met at the National Theatre, when Stephens was on a year-long residency and Haddon on an attachment. At the time, Stephens was writing Motortown, and had read Curious Incident as part of his research on an autistic character. They agree that it was probably theatre director and playwright Dominic Cooke who first suggested, in passing, that Stephens should do the adaptation.
To Stephens, much of the appeal of the novel lay in its ambiguities, and this is something he is proud to have stayed true to in the stage piece. “The interrogations at the heart of this book”, he says, “are the empathetic nature of honesty, and the nature of optimism now.”
Stephens seems to have had little difficulty translating Christopher’s distinctive narrator’s voice to the stage – a leap from the first person that Haddon initially flinched from. For him the main problem was always how to get from Swindon to Willesden on stage. And that’s why he enlisted the help of Frantic Assembly, who did the choreography. A practical move, undoubtedly, but also one which brought an extra dimension to the complex psychology presented on stage: “It struck me that there was something balletic about Christopher’s mind”, says Stephens. “Intellectually, he dances.”
Christopher (played by Luke Treadaway, who won the Olivier Award for Best Actor on Sunday) describes himself as “a young mathematician with some behavioural issues”. The autism label which quickly attached itself to the book is something that Haddon rejects, regretting having “Asperger’s” appear on the cover, especially since it is Christopher’s universally empathetic appeal that has made the book the success it is – a point Stephens is keen to stress: “He’s not an ‘other’”. In fact, as Haddon says, “Christopher represents the complete pleasure of ‘indulging your obsessions’”.
It is clear that from hearing Haddon and Stephens speak that this has been a truly collaborative venture – something Sunday’s Olivier’s were testimony to, with awards garlanding the whole team, from lighting and sound to acting and directing. Haddon’s book has certainly come a long way. As he said himself: “For the first couple of years it feels like your baby. It’s about 36 now: it looks after itself. It rings home occasionally. It’s a very robust thing.”