On Live Rats and Dead Dogs
Back in college, I was very active in theater — I stage managed many plays, and I was house manager for the university’s Program of Theater and Dance. I never got on stage myself (and for that, the community was very grateful!) but I supplemented my hands-on experience with a number of courses on theater, including a class on Shakespeare, one on modern drama (mostly, early 20th c), and one on contemporary drama (late 1960s and forward.)
One of my drama professors drilled home the point that when a playwright calls for something difficult in the staging of his plays (especially children and animals), he must truly think it’s important. Therefore, the three identical sets of plants in Sam Shepard’s TRUE WEST (one set alive and well for the first act, one set dying for the middle act, one set dead for the third act) are an indication of the significance of those plants to the narrative. (Personally, I think Shepard just hates stage managers — witness other requirements for his plays, including screen doors that are cut through, bottles that are shattered, etc.)
I was reminded of this theory, in spades, last night when we saw the National Theater telecast of THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT. The play *opens* with a very realistic dead dog, staked to the stage with a garden fork. Throughout much of the play, the main character (an autistic 15-year-old) carries his live rat — through a variety of settings, including an imagined trip to outer space. (There’s another challenging staging thing late in the play, but I won’t mention it, lest I spoil the story…)
By and large, I think it was worth the effort to “kill” the dog and keep the rat alive. Both add great depth to the story. When I first heard they were making a play out of this novel (told from the point of view of the 15-year-old, with many of his tics incorporated into the narration), I couldn’t imagine how they could stage it. Not all of their efforts worked, but the show was very imaginative. The parts of the story that were most difficult for Christopher were most difficult for the audience — the production uses sound and light and movement to represent the disorientation of the main character.
This production is also quite meta — the characters know that they’re in a play, and they comment occasionally on that fact. At times, the entire thing felt *too* staged, too “created”, but there were genuine emotions evoked. The characters were complex — none of the main characters is all good or all bad, and no one has an easy life.
This is only the second telecast I’ve seen, and I was impressed with the presentation. The team uses multiple cameras, sometimes from angles that the theater audience can’t experience. The close-ups give a much more intimate view of the actors (even if they take away a bit, showing the microphones, etc.) I’ll definitely consider other performances in the future!
(I was reminded, as I watched the show, of Kazuo Ishiguro talking about his novel REMAINS OF THE DAY, which he said he wrote specifically to be not-filmable, as a form of art separate from the television and film that he loved growing up. Of course, it was transformed into an incredible movie with Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson. I suspect Mark Haddon never contemplated his slender novel turning into a play either!)