Dionne Christian is the NZ Herald’s arts and books editor

Siobhan Marshall - Curious calling

Siobhan Marshall's theatre debut is in one of Auckland's most talked-about productions of the year. Photo / Dean Purcell
Siobhan Marshall's theatre debut is in one of Auckland's most talked-about productions of the year. Photo / Dean Purcell

In the boardroom at Auckland Theatre Company, Siobhan Marshall is being transformed from actor in rehearsals - hair tied back, no make up and an activewear onesie in which only a person blessed with height can look stylish - to cover girl.

But the real transformation takes place in ATC's main rehearsal space, where Marshall is preparing for one of the biggest roles of her life. She's done TV, appearing in Outrageous Fortune as Pascalle West, The Almighty Johnsons, The Blue Rose and Shortland Street but has never been in a professional play.

Stage fright, not totally overwhelming but niggly enough, has kept her from the theatre. But last year, when Marshall was on Dancing with the Stars, surely a more frightening prospect than live theatre; she decided she might be missing out by avoiding live performances.

"It's silly, really, because I've done lots of TV and when you're on set, you're surrounded by people and I never had a problem with it," she says, adding that she's enjoying rehearsals.

"I think I might have been missing out and, depending on how it goes when I get on stage, I would very much like to do this again."

Marshall's debut role isn't a simple walk-on, walk-off part in a tried-and-tested show. On the contrary, she's a lead in one of the most talked about Auckland theatre productions of the year. She joins renowned actors Rima Te Wiata (last seen in Hunt for the Wilderpeople) and fellow Outrageous Fortune alumni Wesley Dowdell - among others - for The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time.

British playwright Simon Stephens adapted Mark Haddon's 2003 award-winning novel of the same name for the stage and garnered rave reviews for his imaginative re-telling of the story about a 15-year-old boy (Christopher) with an extraordinary brain. As with the book, multiple awards were bestowed on the production.

ATC is the first company other than London's National Theatre, who staged the play in the West End and New York, to obtain rights to perform Curious Incident. It's a world first and a suitably lauded production team has been assembled for the Auckland season.

Led by Arts Foundation laureate Sara Brodie, regarded as one of our most imaginative directors, the production team includes set designer John Verryt, costumer Kirsty Cameron and sound whizz Thomas Press.

Brodie says she resisted the temptation to watch clips of the NT's production and, having read the book and script years before, has opted to keep proceedings intimate and simple.

"I got the script because, after reading the book, I was - like so many other people - intrigued about how you might adapt it for the stage," she says. "Ever since, I've have had my own ideas on how it might be done and I was very pleased that when I spoke with ATC, I was told to follow my own vision. That's very liberating for a director."

Curious Incident is a complex story of parents and children and relationships in general; of what it means to be human and frail, different but desirous of love and acceptance like anybody else. Much of it is told through Christopher's eyes and he doesn't see things in quite the same way as most people. He's brilliant at maths, but unable to interpret everyday life. He's never been anywhere on his own, hates to be touched, doesn't trust strangers and cannot abide the colour yellow. He could be autistic, living with Asperger's or have some sort of sensory processing difference, but Haddon never slapped him with the labels society likes to pin on those who are not "neuro-typical." The play doesn't either.

But his complex internal world must be re-created on stage. There's a physical journey and a more metaphoric one as Christopher goes from an amateur boy detective, trying to figure out who murdered his neighbour's dog, to a young man making a truly revelatory discovery.

There are multiple allusions to mathematics - so important to Christopher - which involve strong graphic and AV elements. This has seen AV innovator Tim Gruchy working with lighting designer Jo Kilgour to devise magical elements that reflect Christopher's beautiful mind.

Marshall plays his teacher, Siobhan - yes, she sees the wry side - who is one of the few people with whom Christopher has a genuine connection. In the stage version, Siobhan also acts as narrator, meaning there are moments when Marshall is part of the story and others when she stands outside it, directly addressing the audience. She acknowledges it can be a tricky transition.

"There's also the fact that nothing is given away about Siobhan's background," Marshall says. "She doesn't have strong opinions about anything; she's almost a little beige - and that can be annoying - so we've had to come up with our own backstory for her and add some colour.

"I think she almost admires Christopher because he's so honest and maybe she's had people in her background who haven't always been so truthful with her."

But if Marshall faces challenges, she says it's nothing compared with the challenge confronting co-star and show lead Tim Earl. Earl, 23, plays Christopher and is well aware his performance must be sensitive and nuanced otherwise it risks tipping into caricature.

"It's also really tricky because Christopher doesn't look anyone in the eye and I didn't realise how strange it is to be acting and not looking people in the eye," he says.

Earl was the only person director Brodie auditioned for the role. She is guided a lot by her gut feeling, and says her greatest concern was finding the right actor to play the boy.
"I could have spent time auditioning lots of other people and I rang ATC and told them this, but I thought I would just come back to Tim because I knew he was the right one," Brodie says.

Earl admits he read the book and script the night before the audition - "I wagged drama school to get through it" - and immediately recognised the enormity of the role. He felt compelled to sketch a timeline of the story and Christopher's journey.

"I've never done that before but it just felt like the only way I could start to process it," he says. "Of course, I wanted to do it. Who wouldn't want this for one of their first roles out of drama school? It's such a wonderful story and an honour to be asked to play Christopher."

The cast and crew have had help to tell the story as sensitively as possible. Actor, director and teacher Sue Haldane runs an organisation called Mind Over Matter, which uses theatre in workshops run for families, teachers, caregivers and others working closely with teenagers who learn and think differently.

Haldane was already using rehearsal space at ATC when she was asked to talk with the actors about ways to make their performances, and interactions with Earl's Christopher, as authentic as they could. Haldane says she hopes the production will raise awareness.

What: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

Where and when: Q Theatre, July 21 - August 14

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Dionne Christian is the NZ Herald’s arts and books editor

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