Darkly comic bestseller about a man's life with depression heads to Norwich stage
PUBLISHED: 11:30 09 January 2018 | UPDATED: 11:30 09 January 2018
Matthew Johnstone's novel I Had A Black Dog won acclaim for its perceptive story of a man's journey through depression. Now ahead of the stage adaptation's visit, one of the creative team Mark Curtis tells us why it has a strong emotional resonance with him.
It is a book which has won acclaim for its pin-sharp perceptive story of a man’s journey through the challenge of living with anxiety and depression.
Matthew Johnstone’s best-selling novel I Had A Black Dog is the classic story of boy meets girl but with a difference. There is a third person in the relationship: the title character or depression.
How does this affect a fledgling relationship and can it survive with this spectre hanging over it? Well that is the core of the book and now the stage play, which is coming to Norwich Theatre Royal next week.
The production is, to use a cliché, a labour of love for the creative team who are bringing it to life as part of the Creative Matters season which focuses on men’s mental health.
Mark Curtis, who is a member of Small Nose Productions as well as a cast-member, said his own relationship with the book started when he was suffering from mental health issues himself and a friend gave him a copy to read.
He recalls: “Then one day I took it out of my bag, looked at the first page which was I Had A Black Dog and there was a dog with a collar. It said I had a black dog. Its name was depression. At that point my heart sank a bit and I looked through the book and it made so many things that had happened to me make sense. I was able to name something I had been going through since my late teens.”
His theatre company had just started out and he immediately thought Matthew Johnstone’s book was something he wanted to transform into a stage play although he admits the way the book is written did not make that a simple process.
“Although the book is fantastic and perfect and it says things in complete economy without needing to use clinical language or spread the story across 500 pages, a book is something you read behind closed doors. Theatre is on your feet and it is in front of you. Although I was able to think about my own experiences, I found it hard to talk to my parents, wife or friends about it at the time although it is different now.
“The book also doesn’t really follow a narrative. It is quite episodic with this black dog following the male character around. We had to find the drama and the story. In the end, we settled on the classic love story of boy meets girl and their love flourishes.
“What the book does well is it keeps depression open and general. It isn’t specifically about one kind of depression. It talks about an event which leads to the breakdown of a relationship and the depression gets bigger. He then rekindles the relationship and goes into recovery but could there be a happy ending?”
Mark admits the creative process was quite tricky as the themes resonated so strongly with him but this was offset by the degree of openness displayed by the team putting the show together.
He said: “It was a rollercoaster. Many people in the UK will come into contact with some form of anxiety or depression in their lifetime. Everyone we brought into the room during that process had to be open to talk about that from the word go. That was a struggle. I struggled with it creatively and emotionally but after a while when you start to speak about it and share your experiences, it gets easier.
“The other thing that was really useful was it created a show that is very real. We didn’t want audiences to come away thinking we were on some noble mission and get a sense that everything will be alright because we know it isn’t like that. We found a way to release that direct experience into the rehearsal process.”
Mark was also very clear that it needed to blend in humour and laughter so it did not become too worthy and preachy.
He explains: “In order to focus on making a good piece of theatre, you need to side-step the noble cause. Trust that the messages will come across. What we do know when people come to see the show is that they realise they are not on their own. Other people are with me. Also the guys we work with creatively who are good at making a show found the whole process a tonic and a cathartic process. They have made small changes that feed into the creative process and it goes on and on.”
On stage, the show utilises puppetry to show the dog and there is also the character of a tragic clown who acts as the conduit between the audience and the characters.
“Some audience-members are coming away saying the visuals are striking. I think the way we use language is really interesting. At the end of the performance, we find people have found a creative and fun way to discuss something that is a deep-rooted issue in our society and it opened the way for people to speak about it. It is an exercise like you would go for a walk,” said Mark.
• I Had A Black Dog, Stage Two, Norwich Theatre Royal, on January 18, 1.30pm/7.30pm, £10 (£8.50 cons), 01603 630000, theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk