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His Dark Materials
by Lizzie Loveridge

Innocence can be more acute than learning.
--- The Master of Jordan College, Oxford
His Dark Materials
Armoured Bears and Dominic Cooper as Will.
(Photo: Ivan Kyncl)
The dramatisation of Philip Pullman's fantasy adventure trilogy into over six hours of theatre may be the most ambitious undertaking the National Theatre has ever staged. It sold out very quickly probably because of the popularity of the books, which have won several fiction prizes, and because of the National's reputation for reliably good plays for younger patrons over the Christmas period. However what is delivered is a somewhat pedestrian vehicle rather than a magical one.

I have not read the books so at least I was not full of expectation like the hoards of Harry Potter fans who wanted the films to be as detailed and exact as the books. Such is the nature of fantasy that these stories might have fared better staying in the imagination of the reader, or failing that on film or video, where special effects could have attempted a recreation of the original. To quote Philip Pullman the author, "The cinema can easily show a polar bear wearing armour, who can stand up and talk and manipulate machinery. And they can show witches flying through the air and balloons sailing across the Arctic skies, very very easily. To do those things in the theatre you need to reconceive it in theatrical terms. It has to become metaphorical not literal, in a way."

So does His Dark Materials create a theatrical metaphor for the fantasy? There were places where I was involved, even frightened (there are some heart rending and scary moments) but too often my reaction was that the production looked tacky rather than mysterious and magical. It is only fair to say that I am not fascinated by the possibility of parallel universes and magic portals from one of these universes to another. In my opinion, some of the pseudo-science in the Pullman trilogy dispels wonder rather than generating it and with each part running at three hours ten minutes, the action needs to be spellbinding and thrilling.

The stories are long and complex but basically children Lyra (Anna Maxwell Martin) and Will (Dominic Cooper), from Oxford in different universes, come together to battle the forces of evil and put the world to rights. On their way they meet purple clad churchmen (baddies), armoured polar bears (goodies), Oxford dons (good and bad), child catching Gobblers (baddies) and witches (goodies) and end up in the Land of the Dead outwitting the Harpies. Lyra's parents are the Biggles type, Lord Asriel (Timothy Dalton) and English upper class, society hostess Mrs Coulter (Patricia Hodge).

All of the humans in Lyra's world are accompanied by "daemons", a creature which represents the soul and played by a puppet with skilled black clad puppeteers in attendance. Lyra's daemon, Pantalaimon is cutesy cross between a fox and a cat and in the hands of his puppet master, Samuel Barnett is convincing and touching as her animal alter ego. Other people have daemons ranging from small birds through lizards to large dog like creatures; the Gobblers' daemons are wolves with their teeth bared. The more unattractive your daemon, the more unpleasant your true nature.

Designer Giles Cadle utilises the vertically rising and falling and revolving drum set to provide a changeover between worlds. There are numerous scene changes, some of them quite ambitious in concept -- like the evil laboratory for amputating daemons or the liquid nitrogen filled Land of the Dead and spiralling downwards, the mysterious boat of the Ferryman with its giant oars. The costumes are excellent, helping the crowd scenes to look authentic, whether it is Oxford academics in mortar boards and gowns or clerics in purple cassocks. I had my doubts about the angels represented by white tailors dummies with floaty voile skirts but the puppet daemons were effective with their lit eyes under chiffon stretched over wire animal shapes.

Anna Maxwell Martin has a blockbuster of a role and convinces as a child in a sterling performance. Patricia Hodge remains an ambiguous figure in her mink coat and is always caricature, a well heeled stereotype from the 1950s. Just whose side is she on? Timothy Dalton has loads of boyish enthusiasm as he single-mindedly pursues his quest. I liked Danny Sapani's Iorek Byrnison, an armoured bear, ponderous and full of moment like Hamlet's ghost, as feet wide apart, he swayed as if balancing enormous weight on each step. Tim McMullan doubles well in contrasting roles as cowboy hero and evil cardinal. Niamh Cusack has the difficult role as the chief witch and ends up looking like a New Age version of one of Pan's People, a 1960s all female gyrating accompaniment to music on Top of the Pops.

Nicolas Wright's play text narrative flows well enough under Nicholas Hytner's direction, but the whole is laborious and will be remembered by me for its length rather than as an uniquely memorable theatre experience. However the school children packed the audience with enthusiasm and the cast were given a great curtain call.
His Dark Materials
Adapted for the stage by Nicholas Wright
From the original novels by Phillip Pullman
Directed by Nicholas Hytner

Starring: Anna Maxwell Martin, Dominic Cooper, Timothy Dalton, Patricia Hodge, Niamh Cusack
With: Samuel Barnett, John Carlisle, Patrick Godfrey, Stephen Greif, Jamie Harding, Akbar Kurtha, Chris Larkin, Inika Leigh Wright, Helena Lymberry, Tim McMullan, Iain Mitchell, Emily Mytton, Helen Murton, Cecilia Noble, Kate Odey, Nick Sampson, Danny Sapani, Jason Thorpe, Russell Tovey, Daniel Tuite, Andrew Westfield, Ben Whishaw, Kate Wimpenny, Ben Wright, Richard Youman
Designer: Giles Cadle
Lighting Designer: Paule Constable
Sound: Paul Groothuis
Music: Jonathan Dove
Costume Designer: Jon Morrell
Puppet Designer: Michael Curry
Music Director: Steve Edis
Choreography/Assistant Director: Aletta Collins
Running time: Each of two parts, Three hours ten minutes with an interval making Six hours twenty minutes in all.
Box Office: 020 7452 3000
Booking to 27th March 2004 but sold out. Day seats available.
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 14th January 2004 Performance at the Olivier Vic Theatre, National Theatre, South Bank, London SE1(British Rail/Tube: Waterloo)
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