By Stan Getz
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is Simon Stephens’ theatrical adaptation of Mark Haddon’s novel. The play won seven Olivier Awards and five Tony Awards. It also breaks two major playwriting rules. Apparently …
BREAKING THE RULES
Rule #1: Write about relatable characters. The play revolves around Christopher, a gifted teenager with a beautiful mind. His IQ is off the charts. But it’s more than a question of mere brainpower—he’s wired differently. He’s not like you and me.
Rule #2: Write about sympathetic characters. Somebody stabbed a dog with a pitchfork. Christopher is the main suspect. That suspicion starts the play in motion.
But the play only seems to break these rules—and that’s what makes it brilliant. Who doesn’t feel like an outsider? Who hasn’t been accused of a nasty deed they didn’t commit? Like it or not, we can all relate.
Christopher seeks to clear his name—and the result is part canine murder mystery, part family drama. Despite his social anxiety and fears of overstimulation, he emulates his idol Sherlock Holmes and sets out to find the true culprit. Why should we care?
There’s the detective work, of course. Christopher solves clues, puts puzzle pieces together, and performs brilliant leaps of deductive reasoning. The mystery of “Who Murdered the Dog?” is fascinating in its own right. But the playwright has more than cold logic in mind.
Christopher isn’t a mind in a jar. He’s a person you care about.
That’s what drew Director Richard Hopkins to the story in the first place.
The riddle inside the mystery. A riddle named Christopher.
“Christopher is such an amazing character,” says Hopkins. “In this play, you don’t simply meet him—you’re taken inside his mind. I originally fell in love with this play because of Christopher’s magnificent view of the universe. In this play, a grain of sand can become magnificent, while the Milky Way seems manageable.”
According to Hopkins, Haddon’s original novel was a doorway to Christopher’s mind. That rare quality wasn’t lost in theatrical translation. The playwright also puts you in his world and makes you see through his eyes.
The sight is both wonderful and terrifying. He’s a mathematical genius who lives in a rigidly ritualized world. Now his world has been turned upside-down—and math alone won’t set it right. Christopher needs to find who killed the dog. But he also needs to solve the mystery of himself—and his place in the world around him. That world becomes an expanding universe as he follows the clues to their inevitable conclusion.
You feel Christopher’s delight and terror as he leaves his comfort zone. Haddon brilliantly evoked his stream of consciousness in his original novel. But how do you put that subjective reality on stage? A conventional approach would be doomed to fail.
But Stephens’ adaptation is anything but conventional.
Hopkins’ staging will also defy convention. He plans a mind-bending blend of movement, projections, sound and lighting design. “This is a play of transformation,” he says. “Rather than transitioning from scene to scene, the play transforms from one fragment of reality to another. Paradoxically, this will seem both perfectly normal and perfectly special.”
Hopkins adds that Christopher’s personal transformation is the heart of the play. He starts out on an intellectual investigation—and winds up in heart-wrenching homecoming. At the end of Christopher’s odyssey, he arrives where he started—and knows the place for the first time. Theatergoers who join him will have the same experience.
“This play is a mystery story at the deepest level,” says Hopkins. “It revels in the mysteries of life on our solitary planet. How do we get from here to there? What’s cause and what’s effect? The audience is constantly unraveling these mysteries. At the beginning, you join Christopher in his investigations. At the end, you’ll join in his metamorphosis.”