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The International Writers Magazine
: Reviews: His Dark Materials

By Philip Pullman - adapted by Nicholas Wright

Nicholas Hynter Director
Set design by Giles Cadle
Puppet Design Michael Curry (Ex Lion King)
Music Johnathan Dove
Video Projection Design Thomas Gray

Anna Maxwell Martin as Lyra
Patalaimon by Samuel Barnett
Dominic Cooper as Will Parry
Timothy Dalton as Lord Asriel
Patricia Hodge as Mrs Coulter
John Carlisle as Lord Boreal
Niamh Cusack as Serafina Pekkala
National Theatre London Nov 20th 2003 to April 2nd 2004

Review by Sam North

Disappointed not to have got to the first night (due to technical hitches) we finally made it some four months late to the current National Theatre production of His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman (adapted by Nicholas Wright). It was worth the wait. The performance indeed the whole production was brilliant, quite astonishing.

Anna Maxwell Martin as Lyra Photo:Ivan Knycl
We are now very happy we went. Immediately we could see why there might be technical problems. The sets are fantastically ambitious and numerous and I am sure, it is a very complex engineering coup to get this show working smoothly at all. Although I took a little time to warm to Anna Maxwell Martin as Lyra (I know we all have our own interpretation of Lyra and this one is gutsy and witty); the sheer scale of what they have produced here and the brilliance of Nicholas Wright's adaptation is utterly overwhelming. It quickly endears one to the whole enterprise.

Clearly no expense was spared and although I can’t wait for the movie (which I hope will be darker than this version) this production must have astonished Philip Pullman and made him quite proud. I for one could not believe the novels could be transferred to the stage and I am humbled by the skills and enterprise of this show. Everything works well. Characterisation, the fortune telling device, (nicely underscored by music), the costumes (by Jon Morrell), everything has been imagined with courage and skill. The moment when Will opens from one world to another with the Subtle Knife is impressive, using video back projection to great effect as he cuts and then reseals the window to Oxford, then again when they transfer from one world to present day Oxford and the dangerous traffic.

There have been many rave reviews but alas it is closing on April 2nd. Plaudits to Timothy Dalton as the ambitious and heartless Lord Asriel and Russell Tovey for his simple but doting Roger, John Carlisle for his powerful Lord Boreal and Danny Sapani who brought the armoured bear Iorek Brynison to life so convincingly. (It took some getting used to the idea of the bears carrying their heads before them and I felt this on the whole was a bit weird and didn’t work.)

Anyone who has read Northern Lights and The Subtle Knife will know that in Lyra Silvertongue’s world everyone had a daemon (the soul taking the shape of an animal extra to your body). I had wondered how they were going to do that and the idea of puppeteers was excellent and how quickly one forgets them and concentrates on the animals themselves. When Will and Lyra finally meet, there is a good sense of chemistry between them and the show comes alive with their enthusiasm. This is not to deny that what has proceeded before wasn’t gripping, it truly was. Lyra dominates the story from the start and by the time she discovers how truly evil Mrs Coulter is, we fervently want her to get out of there. Her daemon, Pantalaimon is wonderful (puppet voiced and performed by Samuel Barnett) and takes on a life and personality of its own. Her happy escape with the Gyptians and John Faa (Lord of the Western Gyptians) is done with verve. We are transported from London by ship and hence to Norway with smooth changes that overawe with every mechanical facet of the National Theatre being brought into use.

I might note that one cannot ignore the audience in all this. The National’s Olivier auditorium envelops the stage and draws you into the production. The audience, young, excited, predominantly female (Lyra has a lot to answer for and is clearly a heroine for thousands of young girls) knew the books well, and were enthusiastic and this must make a difference to the cast. The laughter came right on cue and I don’t recall being in an audience that was quite so enthralled before. Many watching this night were, like myself and Kit, the ones who had booked for the first night, so the cast had to work hard to win us over. That they did with ease and I am sure many kids left relishing the idea of part two. Both parts are around 3 hours each, including the interval, and it goes to prove that kids do not get restless or bored when given something so good to watch. We watched with the same enthusiasm and left quite buoyed by it all, despite the snow sweeping across London that night.

There has been some amazing intellectual thinking gone into this production and I fervently hope that it is able to transfer to the West End or to New York so others might enjoy it too. (No doubt fundamentalist friends of Mel Gibson and Catholic Archbishops will want to burn the theatre down rather than let it play in the States. Oddly enough our own Church of England Archbishop in the UK wants Philip Pullman's books to be read in schools as a source of inspiration to children. He is enlightened but perhaps misses the point of Pullamn's work which is to say that there is indeed something wonderful that drives our destiny but nothing to do with the 'authority' of the church itself.)

So, if you are reading this and haven’t seen ‘His Dark Materials’ I am sorry. You will not be able to gasp with astonishment at the marvellous multiple set pieces, or enjoy the extraordinary pace as they whip through two books (in Part One) and deal with metaphysics, witches, revenge, cruelty, talking and fighting bears, balloons in flight, as well as the cruellest mother in the world, who seeks to separate children from the daemons so that the Church might control them better. Patricia Hodge plays Mrs Coulter with bravura but to my mind she is not quite evil enough. Nevertheless, if you can’t see the show and you haven’t read the books, start now. In the US for some reason Northern Lights was called The Golden Compass but get hold of the new ‘His Dark Materials’ edition which has all three books in one and thrill to one of the best and most imaginative books to have been written in the 20th Century.
© Sam North March 13th 2004
National Theatre Box Office or Tel: 0207 7452 3000.

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