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July 13, 2012 7:48 pm
“With everything I do there always seems to be a massive risk involved,” says the director Marianne Elliott, blithely.
She selects a slice of kiwi from a fruit salad, pops it into her mouth, and smiles. A warm, disarmingly candid individual, Elliott seems sanguine about the potential for disaster she has just outlined. But then she has a track record of tackling difficult projects with extraordinary flair. She co-directed the National Theatre’s runaway hit, War Horse, gave Shaw’s Saint Joan an urgent, exciting staging and refashioned Middleton’s lurid Jacobean tragedy Women Beware Women as a thrillingly decadent story set in 1950s Italy. Her work often backs up a bold vision with meticulous detail.
This time, she certainly does face a challenge. She is directing the stage premiere of Mark Haddon’s 2003 novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, for the National Theatre. Haddon’s international bestseller is a detective story told from the point of view of Christopher, a 15-year-old boy with an autistic spectrum condition. It remains an utterly compelling read, drawing you in to Christopher’s way of seeing the world.
But how will it work on stage? Adapting any novel into drama can be hazardous, as the narrative demands are so different and the author’s prose style can play a crucial role. With The Curious Incident, these pitfalls are, if anything, magnified. The crucial empathy with Christopher relies on being drawn into his head and seeing events from his perspective. Putting him on stage risks object-ifying him: seeing him from outside, rather than inside.
“There are obvious things that are difficult,” agrees Elliott. “For instance, Mark Haddon never describes what Christopher looks like. Although you see things through his eyes he’s quite a blank page, so that the reader is able to read in what they want Christopher to be. And clearly in a play you just have to make a decision as to who’s going to play that part, what he’s going to look like, how he’s going to move ... We’re trying to do two things. We’re trying to portray the world as he sees it, on stage, and get the audience to imagine what he sees. But we’re also trying to get them to understand the predicament of being his dad.”
Elliott adds that the important thing about the play, written by Simon Stephens (with whom she has worked several times before), is that it doesn’t simply reproduce the book on stage but aims to meet it, offering a dramatic telling of Christopher’s story. And Stephens, in a podcast interview for the Financial Times, highlighted the importance of Christopher’s honesty. Because of his condition, Christopher finds it impossible to lie and is devastated to discover that others have lied to protect him. For Stephens, that honesty is central to the story and it raises big, broader questions about lying, truth-telling, motivation and love.
This sort of moral dilemma is meat and drink to any dramatist and director. But Christopher’s outlook becomes particularly fascinating on stage, because drama relies entirely on people pretending to be something they are not. Just as the novel has to tell a story from the perspective of a character who doesn’t like fiction, so the play has to represent a character who doesn’t like make-believe. Elliott aims to address that contradiction in the style of the show.
“It is performed in the round, because it felt like you had to be inside it,” she says. “And nobody ever pretends that it’s anything other than these people in a space telling a story. It took a long time to find the stage language. There’s a brilliant Sherlock Holmes quote in the book about how his brain was like a laboratory trying to work out how to bring all these insubstantial elements together and I thought, ‘That’s how the staging feels.’ So you could say the set is like a laboratory of his brain. He draws on the floor and his calculations are projected. It turns into a galaxy of stars when he wants to be an astronaut. It’s like a magic box of tricks really.”
Although Christopher might present unique challenges as a dramatic character, Elliott suggests that he does follow on from other outsiders she has tackled: “I’ve realised that I tend to be drawn to stories where characters (and they’re usually female) don’t have a voice. I felt like that growing up – that I didn’t have a voice. I still feel like that, which is why I think I do the job that I do: I get other people to say it for me.”
This sudden admission of insecurity comes as a surprise, given Elliott’s considerable success. But she is clearly a tough judge of her own work. She comes from a theatrical family – her father was Michael Elliott, director and co-founder of Manchester Royal Exchange, and her mother is the actress Rosalind Knight – but she initially resisted the profession. Now 45, she only started to direct when she was 28.
“I suppose it was part of me,” she says, explaining the decision to return to theatre. “I picked up a lot by osmosis, though I was dragged to the theatre kicking and screaming as a kid. But it was part of me. My dad had a big influence on me and although I was never very bright at school, I used to love philosophising with him about big universal things – and I think that’s what directing is.”
She clearly feels she couldn’t – and shouldn’t – compete with her father. She says she wouldn’t be directing if he was still alive: “I feel nothing like him in lots of ways. I’m quite unusual in directing terms. I’m a woman, I’m quite a girly girl, I was never academic. I’m still trying to make my own mark and feel it is OK to do it like this.”
Her own rigorous expectations are the reason she will not now be directing, as originally hoped, the Spice Girls musical Viva Forever!, which opens in December. Artistic differences with the band, perhaps? At this suggestion, Elliott hoots with laughter.
“No!” she cries. “It really wasn’t that. I loved it. But the problem was time. I’ve got a little girl who’s seven and that means I can only do so many shows a year.”
It might have been a lucrative project, I protest. She nods. “It could have been a lot of money. But never do anything for money, that’s what I’ve learned. Never do anything for money and never do anything that you don’t feel absolutely passionate about.”
And with that she is off, back to the task of staging Christopher’s terrifying experience of the London Underground.
‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time’, National Theatre, London www.nationaltheatre.org.uk July 24-October 27, NT Live broadcast on September 6
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