Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Interior Landscapes : Part 1

Recently we have been on two family evenings out: first to the theatre, to see The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time; and, a week later, to the cinema to see Inside Out. Both are intense depictions of interior landscapes, taking the audience inside the heads of the protagonists. Both were excellent.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time is a stunning stage adaptation of the novel of the same name, which has become something of a ‘recent classic’ largely because the narrator is a teenage boy with (what the stage notes helpfully remind us is never named in the book but is nonetheless universally assumed to be) Asperger’s Syndrome.

The set is a work of genius. Rather than depicting the outer world through which the narrator moves – the world as ‘we’ know it – that world is represented from the perspective of Christopher’s interior world, so that the audience experiences (a particular representation of) what it is like to have an Autistic Spectrum Disorder.

This is a dangerous conceit, in that it flatters us into believing that we understand Christopher better than his father or mother or teachers do, people who have struggled and failed to live with the reality of his human condition. But mis/perception is at the heart of the piece. Christopher believes that he cannot lie. His mother told him once that this is because he is good, but he knows that it is not because he is good but because he is not able to lie. And certainly, he lacks the emotional intelligence to tell certain kinds of lie. But Christopher does lie. He has the logical intelligence to knowingly break the spirit of the law without breaking the letter of the law; and his very lack of emotional intelligence results in arriving at conclusions that misrepresent others, or paint a lie. Christopher lives a lie, just as his father lives a lie, and his mother lives another lie: they just go about their self-deception in different ways.

Nonetheless, by the end we are left in no doubt that people are people: all wonder-ful (‘fearfully and wonderfully made’, the ancient Psalmist put it) and all quite impossible at the same time.

The choreography is incredible. Again, this is a work of genius, depicting Christopher’s extreme aversion to physical touch – even the possibility of touch – and to encounters with strangers through the medium of the most demanding physicality. If the set turns our world on its head, the choreography turns Christopher’s world inside-out – and caught in these unfamiliar dimensions, we meet.

The ensemble is cleverly done. Most of the cast play a number of roles, playing on how hard it can be to tell one stranger from another, on how tiring it is to deal with information overload when every detail carries the same weight and yet faces and tone of voice are hard to read.

The language is disturbing. The actor playing Christopher convincingly conveys the monotone voice that is quite common with those with Asperger’s – without ‘normal’ access to emotion, there is less tonal quality to communication. And yet our prejudices are challenged by Christopher’s passion, and humour – which is not entirely unknowing, despite his belief that he cannot tell jokes. We are, rightly, disturbed.

I found the language disturbing in another way. This play – like the book – is full of ‘strong language’. And I mean full. I am not a prude, and I appreciate that people talk like this, and especially when frustrated or angry or unpleasantly surprised. Nonetheless, I found it sad to hear the names ‘God’ and ‘Jesus’ and ‘Christ’ used as expressions of deep frustration, because I believe that this quite fundamentally misrepresents God, who is love. In this sense, I believe that when those who don’t give God much time of day cry out his name at the point of orgasm, in that window onto longing and desire they remember God – and themselves before God – far more accurately, albeit unconsciously.

(Interestingly, we think that one of the cast never swore, in any of their personas, perhaps suggesting that the actor asked and was granted permission to change their lines.)

God is absent from Christopher’s understanding of the world; and, indeed, he sees himself to be superior in intellect to the vicar who helps at his school, where all the other pupils are idiots. I suspect that the vicar sees something in them that Christopher cannot. Again, this is a play about perception, and far from being absent, occupying some other and imaginary plane, God is overwhelmingly present: pulsing through the space, illuminating it; in the lyrical cadences of the dialogue; in the exuberance of the choreography; in the overcoming of fear; in every simple act of kindness shown to Christopher, regardless of his ability to receive it; in the tenderness of tentatively putting back together broken relationships; in the beauty of mathematics.

If God is misrepresented as frustration, God is also at work revealing himself, to those with eyes to see. Christopher sets out to solve a mystery – who killed his neighbour’s dog? Yet in the end the mystery is not solved by deduction, it is resolved by revelation. Puzzles are to be solved. Mathematical questions are to be proven. Mystery is to be experienced.

We went, in part, because we love being a ten-minute walk away from a theatre that has the west End shows on tour; and, in part, because our teenage daughter has Asperger’s. We had all read the book, but didn’t know how it had been adapted for the stage. Ironically, the immersion into autistic disorientation resulted in emotional overload for her. As she put it, just because I can identify with what is going on in his head doesn’t mean I want to see it projected onto the stage! That said, and harrowing though it was, the rest of us really enjoyed the play, and would all thoroughly recommend it.

Next time, I’ll write about Inside Out.

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