Stockport’s Simon Stephens on The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
PUBLISHED: 00:00 13 January 2017
Â Alex Rumford
The very first time Simon Stephens adapted a book for the stage, it was best-selling novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Talk about taking your life in your hands. Kate Houghton writes.
Simon grew up in Stockport and before he went to university, to study history, had never seen a single theatre production. So how did that boy become this man, applauded nightly for his glorious translation of Mark Haddon’s book about a boy with Asperger Syndrome who sets off on a life altering adventure?
‘Not that I thought I could, but I first wanted to be a song-writer,’ he tells me. ‘In a world where you can often feel isolated, there’s a comfort to be taken in fiction, a feeling that you’re not alone. Books or music, it was writers making sense of a world I was living through. When I got to university all the cool kids and the hot girls wanted to be actors and in a misguided attempt to meet them I went to the plays they would put on.’
While Simon didn’t get to meet any of the hot girls, he did realise the potential of the medium and started writing plays for the university’s Am Dram society.
‘I had never met a writer in my life; growing up I had no idea it was something I could be. The notion that I could write was self-discovery. Once I had done a few, I realised that if I ever did anything else there would always be a small part of me disappointed with myself,’ he says.
Previously having only (only!) written original plays, it was a new move for Simon to take on a dramatisation of any novel, let alone one that so many people had read and loved. He was asked to do it by the author himself, Mark Haddon, and agreed in part because Mark was a friend and in part because ‘I wanted to do something my children could go and see.’
I ask where one starts when adapting a novel and how much concern he had over this particular adaptation.
‘There are two issues when working with an incredibly popular book. First, ignore how invested people are in it and second, only do it if you love it as much as everybody else.
‘The adaptation itself is a very technical thing. A novelist concerns themselves with thought, observation, memory, reflection and idea. But while a playwright is interested in those things, he or she necessarily has to realise their work though behaviour – what the character does. Our character is not all innocent. He lies, bullies, cajoles, frightens – he’s very manipulative. It’s the things that people do to each other that are the meat and drink of a dramatist. And by ‘do’, I don’t mean the purely physical behaviour, but emotional and psychological behaviour.’
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is an extraordinary play. Gripping from start to finish, it plays on the combined emotion of the audience to bring us to a peak of breathless hope; yet it is hope wrapped in an awareness of what life, in truth, holds for this boy. It’s truly magnificent and even if you’ve never even picked up the book, or seen a stage play before, it’s one to see and feel and store in the heart. This emotional impact can only be accomplished by the perfect partnership of writer and director, of words and action, however, which was clearly the case here.
‘I have been lucky enough to have worked with some of the most brilliant and best of directors and Marianne is one of the great artists of our time; there are few better than her. Seeing it on stage; I felt excitement and awe and real pleasure - and also a sense of terror, as people are judging.
‘An adaptation can go far more horribly wrong than an original play. If we’d messed it up we’d have been rightly crucified. The only thing that got us through the possibility of disaster was the thought that nobody loved this book more than we did.
‘It’s a story about a boy being brave. Tell it honestly and get a great team then you may well be alright in the end.’ The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time runs from 21 January to 4 February at The Lowry, Salford.
0843 208 6000 | thelowry.com