Turn the pages of this award-winning novel and it gets curiouser and curiouser.
And the stage adaptation of Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time has proved just as compelling.
Winner of seven 2013 Olivier Awards and, more recently five Tony Awards, the highly-acclaimed National Theatre production returns to the North East as part its nationwide tour next month.
It breathes dramatic life into the tale of unlikely hero Christopher, a 15-year-old with an exceptional brain. Though he’s marvellous at maths, he’s ill-equipped to interpret everyday life.
When he falls under suspicion of killing Mrs Shears’ dog, it takes him on a journey that upturns his world.
Playwright Simon Stephens transformed writer Mark Haddon’s text for the stage. But it was no mean feat adapting a literary piece heavily concerned with thoughts and reflections into a drama.
What’s startling is the extent of his bravery, it astounds everyone, including himself.Simon Stephens, playwright
“It took five weeks to adapt, I sent the first initial email in March 2008 and the first draft was completed in autumn 2009,” he explained. “It took 18 months to actually find the five weeks to write it. A lot of that time was spent getting the rights and finding the right theatrical language.
“A lot of it had to be cut. It’s a 250 page novel, and you can’t do 250 pages of prose, it would take nine hours to perform.
“Plays concern themselves with the things people do and say to each other, whereas a novel is more about reflection and imagination.
“Christopher thinks a lot about maths and science, there are pages of it, about the existence and nonexistence of fairies, I had to be brutal in cutting it down because it’s not dramatic, it’s reflective. So, instead, the play is based on the things he does.”
He added: “If you can find a dramatic reason for it, you can use it. The objective is to create a subjective evocation of the space in Christopher’s brain. If he wants to use that space to become a galaxy, then it can.”
It’s a text that need to be treated with care, such is its popularity. The novel was published in 2003 and went on to win more than 17 literary awards, including prizes in Japan, Holland and Italy as well as the Whitbread Book of the Year Award in the UK in 2004, and was translated into 44 languages.
As well as finding the right language to tell the story, it’s also deftly told in a visually striking way.
The action takes place in a large, clinical cube lined with grids which display how baffling the world is to Christopher, who is recognisably on the autism spectrum.
From brilliant maths equations in which he revels, to the dazzling constellations of the universe and the hustle and bustle of London and its pulsating neon signs and lights which assault his senses, all whizz past you in a captivating spectacle.
The play is directed by Marianne Elliott, who co-directed National Theatre stablemate War Horse.
Simon said: “It’s directed by Marianne Elliott, the same director as War Horse. She has such a remarkable imagination. She works with the mentality that theatre is democratic, that it’s for everybody.
“It’s an art form that a lot of people feel they don’t belong to, or that it’s not for them. The great thing about Curious is that appeals to everybody, whether they are 10 or 90.”
Though Christopher isn’t the most obvious of heroes – he struggles to feel warmth for fellow humans – you can’t help but root for him by the end of the piece.
Stephen says he too, as a reader, felt drawn to the complex character.
“Theatre is a brilliant art form for dramatising bravery,” he said. “What’s startling is the extent of his bravery, it astounds everyone, including himself.
“In my plays I often focus on the loss of a parent or a lack of empathy. Christopher finds empathy difficult, and a lot of the themes in the book are the themes in my plays.”
Due to the nature of the character, Christopher, is not an easy role to fill.
“There’s a high level of casting,” said Stephen. It’s a very physically and intellectually-demanding role. You are on stage the whole time, the scenes switch all the time, it’s draining and you take a battering. That’s why it’s great for actors like Alex Sharp – who this year won the Tony for Best Performance by a leading Actor in a Play – to be acknowledged.
“The movement is incredible, the set, the video projections, it’s not just posh people in a room talking about a garden, It’s not an experience you get in any other art form.
“I still watch it,” he said. “I went to see it last Sunday and I’m seeing it with my children this weekend. I wanted to make something that my children could see. Each time it’s a new play, the audience make it different.”
•Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time is at Sunderland Empire from August 11-15. Tickets available in person at the Box Office on High Street West, the Ticket Centre on 0844 871 3022 or online at www.ATGtickets.com/Sunderland.