“I didn’t want to do something bogus or sentimental or saccharin or half-arsed,” Simon Stephens says, pausing between each adjective for emphasis, as he tells me how you deal with the weight of having a bestseller on your shoulders. “Because the book is held in such esteem and with such affection by so many people, I didn’t want to frustrate or disappoint them.”
We’re talking about The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time of course, so “many people” barely covers it. Fifty Shades Of Grey mania aside, Mark Haddon’s 2003 book about a 15-year-old boy with a behavioural condition embarking on a Sherlock Holmes-style murder investigation remains one of the most popular publications for an adult audience written by a living author with more than two million copies sold.
It’s quite an accolade, but the relationship leading to Haddon and Stephens’ collaboration is more relatable. “Mark was on attachment at the National Theatre Studio when I was on residency there, we met one another and hung out and became friends,” Stephens tells me, explaining they bonded not just over their similarities as writers – they both “revel in surprising juxtapositions of adverbs, adjectives and nouns” apparently – but on a personal level: “We’re both men of pretty much the same age, we’re both fathers, we both listen to a similar type of music, we both kind of secretly wish we’d been in bands, we’re both married to very strong women, we’d probably admit for both of us that being a father is more important than being a writer.”
Haddon had received numerous bids for the rights to adapt the book for stage – “from student adaptations to commercial musical theatre” Stephens recounts – but it was Stephens, the award-winning playwright of Port, Punk Rock and Morning, who Haddon chose to call, following five years of championing one another’s careers, and put the wheels in motion of bringing the story of Christopher to life.
Stephens’ first reaction was of “being immensely flattered and fantastically daunted,” explaining: “I think he wanted somebody to do the adaptation who he trusted and for some insane reason he asked me.” For a writer who truly understands the intricacies and vulnerability of presenting a detailed world of your imagining to the public, presenting another artist’s work is clearly a huge responsibility. In order to make the project work, Stephens suggested removing any unnecessary pressures by working on it without a theatre involved or a fee in the first instance. “I suggested to him that I just have a go and see if I can do it on the understanding that I have the right to ring him at any moment and say ‘mate, I tried, I failed, I can’t do it, sorry I let you down’. That sense of liberation, of not feeling a Literary Manager breathing down my neck, was really helpful.”
Everyone now knows, of course, the final result of the commission. Following its premiere at the National Theatre’s Cottesloe space in 2012, the hugely popular production is now playing in the West End with Stephens’ work, Luke Treadaway’s lead performance as Christopher and Marianne Elliott’s innovative direction earning not only critical acclaim but a healthy swag bag of awards to boot.
For Stephens the process of transporting Haddon’s story onto the stage began with a technical exercise. Free from the usual structure of writing a play, “generating characters and situations”, the question became simply how to dramatise the story. “It’s interesting comparing it to the process of doing the version of A Doll’s House [Stephens’ version for the Young Vic theatre will be revived later this month],” Stephens tells me. “A Doll’s House is masterful dramaturgy, because Henrik Ibsen, who is one of the greatest thinkers about theatre in the history of the human f**king race, has made this play and all you’ve got to do is find the right language. With Mark’s book, you’ve got beautiful language, so you don’t need to think about language or character, all you need to think about is how to make something dramatic, rather than descriptive.”
Re-reading the novel and writing down each key event that takes place began to give the play shape, but, as anyone who has read the book will know, the incredible thing about the novel is not what happens, rather how Christopher perceives and relays those events. Translating that to the stage, however, was a challenge. “What struck me as important was that the most seductive element of the book was potentially the least dramatic, which was Christopher’s gorgeous inner voice,” Stephens explains. “You read the book and you just want to wash yourself in Christopher’s brain because it’s so compelling, but it’s actually not very dramatic.”
Knowing it would be a disastrous mistake to remove the protagonist’s voice entirely, Stephens stumbled on the idea of framing the play using a device existing in the book; the novel Christopher is writing about the mystery as it unfolds. In the play this is now read aloud by his teacher who becomes a narrator and gateway to the boy’s thoughts. But this wasn’t enough; Stephens believed audiences really needed to be able to see inside Christopher’s mind. “What struck me was that in reading the book, there’s something balletic about the leaps of Christopher’s imagination. When you read the book you feel like you’re in the presence of a great thinker and how do you dramatise great thoughts on stage?”
Having recently met physical theatre company Frantic Assembly’s co-Artistic Directors Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett, he decided to place the dilemma in their capable hands. It may not seem an obvious marriage, physical theatre and a lead character with a behavioural condition that means he can’t be touched, but as Graham told me, “the fact they [the characters] can’t touch doesn’t mean physicality is ruled out,” rather that, given the impact of such a condition on every character in the story, “it means that every moment should ache with the desire to touch.”
During the show’s development time at the National Theatre Studio – the NT’s space which enables artists to essentially play with ideas and the silent collaborator behind many of the institution’s hits including War Horse and London Road – Graham and Hoggett, co-Movement Directors for the project, set about creating a structure of strict rules to make it possible to share Christopher’s mind through physicality. “When he’s [Christopher] in a real natural situation or when he is into his head and his own fears, then I think different theatrical rules apply and for somebody with a mind that is so particular and a lifestyle that is so particular, the journey that he goes on must have been 10 times as terrifying as we could possibly imagine. That required his environment to become 10 times as terrifying. We had to fuel that. That means getting our hands on him, throwing him around. He’s not powerful, he should be tiny in some moments and he should be huge in others because when he goes into his imagination, it’s limitless, he’s all powerful.”
The creative team took a risk on the idea, pushing Graham and Hoggett out of their comfort zone, breaking their usual conventions by “having actors playing furniture and making props fly across the room”. While Stephens admits that “although in some ways it’s a complete betrayal of the truth of Christopher,” he saw something in Christopher’s thinking that, counter-intuitive or not, was akin to dancing. However, this didn’t mean that there weren’t moments, right up until there was an audience in front of them, when Graham admits that he and Hoggett weren’t sure whether it would work, but the payoff has been well worth any anxiety or doubt. “I think what’s clear from Mark is that he’s absolutely thrilled with it. It’s not just his words that have come to life, his joy in the book has been rekindled. Christopher does fly now, he goes to those places he talks about, and in this version he’s 15, 20 feet up walls and he’s flitting, jumping all over the place. You can see by the grin on his face, he’s absolutely chuffed about what Luke Treadaway is embodying with this Christopher character, it’s incredible.”
The passion for the piece goes well beyond Stephens, Haddon, Frantic Assembly or Elliot, however. While Haddon has always veered away from defining Christopher’s condition and Stephens continued this – “My only concern really was with dramatising the character that Mark had imagined, so if Mark was happy for his condition not to be diagnosed then I was happy” – it is an emotionally raw subject for people coping with similar conditions, and so with it comes an added responsibility.
From speaking to both Stephens and Graham, the overwhelming truth is the process from best-selling novel to stage may begin as a technical exercise, but it is fired by the combined passions of a true collaboration. Its success may not be solely equated to Stephens’ words, but understandably offers are now coming the playwright’s way to work his magic on other novels. For now, Stephens has yet to be tempted, but as we say goodbye, he laughs and tantalisingly adds, “I reserve the right to change my mind about that.”