By Mark Blankenship
There could, of course, be a very literal production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. As our teenage hero, Christopher Boone, investigates the death of a neighbor's dog, he could certainly inhabit a realistic world. As clues lead him on an improbable adventure from suburban England to the busy streets of London, we could see the walls and floor of his actual apartment, hear the sounds of nature as he wanders his neighborhood, and see the lights of a train station in the intimidating city.
But if the design were naturalistic, then we might not understand our hero. Though the word "autism" is never used in Simon Stephens' script, which is adapted from Mark Haddon's popular 2003 novel of the same name, Christopher is clearly on the spectrum. His relationship to everything---sound, light, physical touch, emotions---is highly sensitive, but at the same time, he's a genius with numbers who loves the precision of train schedules and the vastness of outer space. For him, the world is a constant negotiation between chaos and control, where every stimulus can trigger panic or excitement.
It's a reality like no one else's. That's why the National Theatre's production of the play, which is now on Broadway at the Ethel Barrymore, has been designed to show us how it feels. As lighting designer Paule Constable says, "We're trying to get the audience to imagine what it would be like to be Christopher, to empathize in a way where it's more experiential than just watching him. We want the audience not to look at him, but to share with him."
Therefore, the walls of the set look like giant sheets of graph paper, where Christopher can draw maps and where images can be projected as he thinks of them. "He loves technology and computers and space, so we tried to include those in the design," Constable adds. "There are pixels---dots of light all over the set that light up at various points. We're trying to create the matrix of what Christopher's head is like."
The design, which Constable says was a "complete celebration of really good collaboration," is also fluid enough to change with Christopher's moods. When he feels in control, the sound and lights might have a gentle quality, but when he feels threatened, the costumes might suddenly have patches of yellow, his least favorite color.
These elements even extend into the audience. "We realized that we needed to make the space immersive so that it would absolutely reflect the emotional state that Christopher was in," Constable says. She notes that actors enter and exit through the auditorium and that at times, the house lights get especially dark---"much darker than you would normally have in a theatre"---to suggest the boy's isolation.
There are times, however, when the design needs to tell us things about Christopher's story that he can't grasp himself. Take the scene where he remembers his mother, who has been dead for two years. "The light boxes around the space all go blue, and that's the first time you've seen them in a color," Constable says, adding that Ian Dickinson's sound design and Adrian Sutton's original music also become especially soothing. "It's the first time the whole space has responded in that lyrical way to one of his memories. The way we offer [his mother] to the audience is all about that sense of memory and childhood and safety, because what's key about that scene is that it's about what he's lost.
"He doesn't understand why that's painful. He can't understand it, but it's important for the audience to have a sense of nostalgia for someone they've never met."
Ideally, a moment like that not only lets us visit Christopher's world, but also helps us relate it to our own. "I have a 16 year-old son," Constable says. "And I remember when he was about 12, we were walking on a beach with a load of friends. He came running up to me and said, 'I just feel so full of feelings!' Because he was really happy. And it's funny: Even with a boy who's not on the spectrum, you go, 'Children find it really hard to understand what their feelings are, but they still feel them.' And we want to suggest all that, even if it's really hard for Christopher to do so."
Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor
Photo by Joan Marcus