The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time: lead actor talks about the role’s physical demands
The West End adaptation of Mark Haddon’s bestselling book is coming to Hong Kong for the 2018 Arts Festival. Joshua Jenkins talks about the effort of playing the 15-year-old main character and the play’s positive effects on audience members who are on the autistic spectrum
One warm evening in 2015 the entire cast of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time were gathered for a party at a cottage near Truro in Cornwall, southwest England.
They were there as part of the first UK tour of the National Theatre production and were having a rare night off at the digs of one of the cast members, chatting and drinking and eating. Then, in the skies above them, there was a shooting star.
“We sat there for 15 or 20 minutes in absolute silence,” remembered Joshua Jenkins, who was playing the lead role of Christopher Boone. “We were all able to sit there without talking, in a kind of wonder. And I think that was because of the character of Christopher.
“When you play Christopher Boone every night you get to open your eyes and start people-watching or looking up at the sky and realising how negligible you are. He’s such a wonderful, beautiful being.”
Curious Incident – which is based on British author Mark Haddon’s 2003 novel of the same title – is the story of a 15 year-old boy whose favourite colour is “red and metal colour” and when he looks at the rain it makes him think how all the water in the world is connected. He also can only tell the truth.
“I do not tell lies. Not because I’m a good person but because I can’t tell lies,” says Christopher, who describes himself as “a mathematician with some behavioural difficulties”.
Yet around him, many of the adults keep on withholding the truth. And when a neighbour’s dog, Wellington, is killed and everyone refuses to talk about it, Christopher decides to become a detective and find out who did it. Which leads the way to all sorts of adventures and hidden truths.
Jenkins is one of two actors who will be playing Christopher when the National Theatre production comes to Hong Kong this weekend as one of the 2018 Arts Festival headliners. He joined the company for the first UK tour two years ago.
“There were four auditions and the final one involved more than an hour of sit-ups and press-ups and other physical things,” the actor recalls.
Because to be Christopher, you don’t just have to be able to be a teenage boy and believable in his determination to pursue the truth despite his own fears, Jenkins explains, you also have to be very strong.
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“You have to alter your diet to have double your usual intake because it burns so many calories. I was drinking six or seven litres of water from the moment I got into the theatre to the end of the play,” Jenkins says.
And in preparation for the international tour, which started last September, he was running almost every day and doing 150 sit-ups every morning. “And it’s such boring food. No red meat. Or cheese … it’s all tomatoes and lettuce,” he adds.
Jenkins is now 30: “You’re obviously not going to get a 15-year-old kid to do this role.”
What was he like when he was 15? “Nightmare,”. he says, jokingly. “I was a confident kid – I am not sure I like that about myself. But it’s so tough for anyone to be 15, and Christopher’s got so much more to deal with.”
When Jenkins was nine he loved old Fred Astaire films and longed for tap shoes.
“My mother wouldn’t buy them for me,” he says. “I did football Saturdays, rugby Sundays – a proper Welsh boy – and she didn’t think I had time. But my gran loved the idea. She went behind my mum’s back and bought me the shoes.”
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He took to it. “From the moment I started, I fell in love with it all. And from when I was Christopher’s age I knew I wanted to be an actor. I had that focus. If I hadn’t had it I don’t know where I’d be. Prison maybe,” says Jenkins.
He was joking, but not entirely. “It’s very easy to get lost in the world, isn’t it, if you don’t know where you’re going.
“I had friends who got lost. I was just very lucky. Rather than being on the streets I was in rehearsal rooms. It’s good to have a focus – it could be acting or playing a musical instrument. Or rugby. Or maths and science, like for Christopher.”
In the original book, you can enter Christopher’s mind through the writer’s words. But in the play it all had to be visual and audible, and the National Theatre team came up with an extraordinary set in the shape of a huge box.
It is lit with 3,200 metres (2 miles) of LEDs, fired up by state of the art projectors that cost around HK$750,000 (US$95,000)each, and it has a myriad of wonderful props and lighting prompts that take 14 people backstage to operate.
The set rather brilliantly represents both the liquid beauty of Christopher’s brain and the entire cosmos, which is both a technical marvel, and also somehow a spiritual experience.
When Jenkins did the UK tour two years ago he met many young people on the autism spectrum who were moved by the play.
“You wouldn’t believe how many times some people come to see the show,” the actor says.
“I remember one boy from Scotland called Henry. He came to see it in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Birmingham, London and even New York. He always came round after the show and we had a 20- or 30-minute chat.
“He said when he first read the book it had really opened his eyes to know there was someone out there like him. And he got so emotional about the show. It’s like it’s a voice for anyone who sees the world differently.”
As part of their preparation for their roles, the cast members visited Treehouse School in North London.
“The school is amazing. It has a pretend shop where the students can learn to shop, or to sell items. And it’s got an incredible playground,” says Jenkins.
“We spoke to a boy called Ciaan who was in his late teens, and he’s been an adviser on the show since the beginning. Every single actor who’s played Christopher has met him.”
He was generous, Jenkins says. “And truthful: I was amazed at how open he was. He had this amazing ability to reflect on himself. And he had a wonderful memory.”
He told them how he’d associate random items with each person to remember their names. “So one person he’d think of a cupcake and he’d remember what they were called. Or me he’d think of sausages as the word sounds like Joshua.”
They spoke to his mother about the challenges she and her son had faced. “It was humbling. And tough too.”
Jenkins went to the same drama school as Bafta award-winning actor James McAvoy.
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“He gave some good advice when he came back to give a talk,” Jenkins remembers. “He said you can’t be bogged down by always thinking ‘I want to do this, and I don’t want to do that.’ Your career chooses you and you have to be open to whatever it might be.”
It might be unemployment, it might be Hollywood, it might be the Royal Shakespeare Company, McAvoy told them.
“If you’re unemployed it’s OK. If you’re employed it’s OK. You just have to have openness to all of it.”
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Lyric Theatre, Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts. March 8 to 18, 7.30pm; Mar 10, 11, 17 and 18, 2.30pm. No performance on Mar 12.
HK$300 to HK$580. Urbtix Inquiries: 2824 2430.