My take on the Curious Incident play

Curious Incident blog_header

Last Saturday I finally got to see The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time play in the West End. I say ‘finally’ because I have wanted to see it ever since I first read Mark Haddon’s book a few years ago and loved it. I was actually due to see the play a while ago in the West End but it was shortly after the roof collapsed in the theatre, so I’ve waited until now to see a captioned performance of it by STAGETEXT at a different theatre, the Gielgud Theatre.

Because the book is written in the first person from the point of view of Christopher, the main character, I did wonder how they would be able to convey on-stage the unique way he sees the world, and whether it would work or not. We are led to believe that Christopher has Asperger Syndrome, a form of autism, so because he is telling us the story, we see things through his eyes and we are introduced to his magical, brilliant, but altogether confused, mind.

Curious Incident blog_STAGETEXT

Christopher is a fifteen-year-old boy, who is brilliant at maths and needs everything to be logical and organised to be able to be calm and focused. When they’re not, which is quite often the case, he becomes overwhelmed and terrified, unable to function in a noisy, chaotic world, which is full of things and strange behaviour by other people, which he can’t make sense of.

The way that this was done on-stage was actually very clever. Siobhan, Christopher’s teacher from his special needs school, narrated his story from the book that he had written, at the same time as the actual acting of his story was taking place. It worked well and it was really convincing.

Curious Incident blog_Siobhan

Apart from being a good story, which was very well acted, the other brilliant thing about this production was the stage set. My wife, friend and I had excellent seats in the Dress Circle, facing right onto the stage, with the two STAGETEXT caption units perfectly placed at eye level to either side of us, so I could follow the dialogue really well.

The stage was designed like a giant geometric grid. At various points throughout the action, it would light up with bright colours, flash lots of numbers up or project different sets such as Paddington Station or London streets. Watching the stage sets change, sometimes with walls closing in, opening up or escalators suddenly appearing in the tube station, was like walking into a magical, fantasy world as Christopher’s almost psychedelic imagination is unleashed upon us.

I thought the actor, who played Christopher, Kaffe Keating, was very convincing. I read an article in the programme afterwards by the author of the original book, Mark Haddon, which I thought was really insightful. He talked about how Christopher describes himself as someone who has ‘Behavioural Problems’ because that is the term medical professionals have used to describe him. He says that labels like that tell us very little about the person who has been labeled and a lot about the people doing the labeling. In other words, often well-intentioned people are searching for the correct PC term to use to label a disabled person, instead of treating that person like an individual and trying to find out what they are like by just talking to them and getting to know them.

Curious Incident_Christopher train

Disabled people are all different and unique, just like any other group in society, so if someone asks whether Christopher is a correct representation of someone with autism, we shouldn’t really be asking that question. After all, he says, we wouldn’t ask if a character, who is a cellist, lesbian or archbishop, for example, are representative of those types of people, so why should we assume that people with a certain disability are representative of all people with that disability either?

The irony is that Christopher is labelled as having ‘Behavioural Problems’ when the adults around him, such as his father and mother, are dysfunctional and cause Christopher a lot of pain and suffering with their own behaviour. His father, for instance, played brilliantly by Nicholas Tennant, is unable to cope with Christopher or communicate well with him, so he goes from lying about his mother leaving him to try and save his feelings to lashing out at him from time to time through sheer frustration. Similarly, his mother left him to run off with the neighbour to London, partly because she is unable to cope with Christopher and deal with her emotions.

THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME
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Christopher can talk to people who aren’t close to him, though, such as his teacher Siobhan, as well as his kindly old neighbour Mrs Alexander. He also seems to have a special bond with animals, which he doesn’t have with people as he lacks empathy for them and can only see things in a simple, logical way. He obviously loved his neighbour’s dog Wellington, who we see has been brutally murdered at the beginning of the play. He also loves his pet rat Toby, who he insists on taking with him on his terrifying trip to London to try and find his mother.

I don’t want to give any more of the plot away for anyone who still hasn’t read the book or seen the play. Needless to say I thought this production was brilliant. It was very well acted and watching it was a real delight because the visuals, special effects and stage set were just incredible. It was definitely worth the wait. If you haven’t seen it yet, I’d definitely recommend it!

Curious Incident blog Christopher

 

February’s highlights: Access to the arts in action

Access in Action blog_Trafalgar set

I’ve been to see some great plays and art exhibitions this month, which have proved to me once again how important great access to theatre and the arts is to deaf and disabled people.

At the beginning of February I saw a performance of Jamie Lloyd’s production of The Homecoming, which was captioned by STAGETEXT at the Trafalgar Studios in London. This is a Harold Pinter play and while I found the actual play pretty weird and disturbing (which I think it’s meant to be as it’s supposed to be shocking and thought-provoking), the access provided by the captioning was excellent.

We were seated close to the action on stage and I could read the captions really clearly as the caption unit was placed directly above the stage. I didn’t have to keep moving my head from side to side or up and down like watching tennis at Wimbledon to read the text and follow the action at the same time.

This is one of my favourite places to watch a play. The tickets are only £15 each on a Monday night, so it makes it accessible and inclusive to all. The audience is also quite diverse, with young and older people alike all sitting together in a cosy, informal atmosphere. There’s no elitism about the place. It was packed and everyone looked like they were having a good time.

It was a shame that the hearing loop didn’t work, even after I swapped it for another one during the interval. But it didn’t spoil my enjoyment of the performance in any way as I could still hear most of it and I could read the captions very well from where I was sitting.

My experience of watching Shakespeare’s As You Like It at the National Theatre about a week later was completely different, though. This was also captioned by STAGETEXT. When I first took my seat, I saw that there was a very elaborate stage set, designed like a large modern office, complete with desks, chairs and computers.

Access in Action blog_National office set

Two caption units were placed to the far left and right of the stage, instead of above the stage. At first, I wondered why they had been put there because it made it quite difficult to follow the captions and the action on stage at the same time when I had to keep moving my head from the caption units at the sides to the stage where the actors were.

It all became clear after a while though when suddenly, the whole set, complete with upside down chairs and tables was lifted and suspended in the air above the stage. The chairs and tables, which were hanging from the ceiling, had been transformed into a forest and they were now meant to be trees. The rest of the action took place in this atmospheric, misty half office/forest setting.

The effect it gave was really creative and different. I’d never seen office furniture transformed into a forest before, but it seemed to work somehow. From an access point of view though, it wasn’t ideal as although I could see how it would be impossible to have put the caption units above the stage with such an elaborate set, it meant that anyone relying on the captions would either have to follow the captions or watch the action on-stage, as it was impossible to do both at the same time.

Access in Action blog_Forest

Thankfully, the hearing loop was crystal clear, so I still managed to follow the dialogue and enjoy the play. The acting was brilliant, the plot really funny and the set design amazing. I also think that putting it in such a modern setting with the actors dressed in modern clothes made Shakespeare seem much more accessible and relevant to today’s audiences.

It made me wonder, though, whether theatre set designers should incorporate decisions about access right from the start when they are planning their sets. Later, I asked STAGETEXT about this and they told me that it can be difficult to find the perfect placement for the caption units across a range of different venues and complex sets. They said that their Theatre Programme Manager works directly with venues to ensure that the units are as close to the action as possible. But with theatres that have their own captioning equipment, they have less of a say where the units are positioned than they do if they are captioning it themselves.

Also, with some of the West End shows, STAGETEXT has to mark out an allocation of caption user seats as soon as the dates go on sale and this is often before there is even a set design in place for the production. This explains why sometimes the caption units are not in the ideal position for the caption users. I have to say though, that the majority of times I’ve seen a captioned performance, the experience has been excellent and fully accessible to me.

The access was really good at the exhibition I went to with my wife yesterday at the National Gallery too: http://bit.ly/1P9yDQw. It was a major exhibition of the early 19th Century French artist Delacroix’s paintings, whose work inspired the younger Impressionists and modern artists who came after him.

Access in Action blog_Delacroix National Gallery

I asked for a hearing loop for the recorded audio guide of the exhibition. The staff there were really helpful and made sure that the loop worked before I went into the exhibition. It was crystal clear and easy to use.

I didn’t really know much about Delacroix before or how important an artist and influence he was. The exhibition describes him as ‘The Father of Modern Art’ with a quote from Cézanne saying “We all paint in Delacroix’s language”. In the exhibition we saw original paintings by Delacroix alongside others by such famous artists as Van Gogh, Gauguin, Renoir, Monet and Cézanne, who had all been inspired by his works.

Access in Action blog_Van Gogh flowers

What I love about these Delacroix paintings is that they are very colourful and it’s obvious that he painted them with a lot of passion and energy. He was one of the first artists to unleash his imagination and express on canvas the powerful emotions and ferocious intensity that were building up inside him like a volcano, whether it was in a still life painting, landscape, portrait, historical battle or religious scene.

I really loved his North African paintings in the exhibition, which showed scenes of rich luxuriant landscapes and architecture, bright colours, brilliant sunlight and exotic animals such as lions and tigers. These were all new and fascinating to a man such as him coming from Paris. The Delacroix exhibition is on until 22nd May so if you haven’t seen it yet, I would highly recommend you go and check it out!

Access in Action blog_Delacroix lion