Nicholas Hytner has dared to take Philip Pullman’s classic trilogy ‘His Dark Materials’ – what else can you call a book that polled third position in the BBC’s Big Read 100 most popular books – and attempt to bring this mythical epic to life on the Olivier stage. For those not familiar with Pullman’s trilogy, the story covers parallel universes, heaven, Hades and other legendry realms - realms populated by witches, hypies, angels, armour-clad polar bears, and a whole host of other folkloric creatures.
In Pullman’s trilogy God is the ‘Authority’ worshipped by a powerful hierarchical corrupt church, which opposes knowledge and freedom of expression and views sex as a loathsome, impure and corrupting vice. However, the church is afraid of a twelve-year-old girl called Lyra, who is referred to in prophecies as someone who may cause a series of events that will destroy the great Authority and the church, and allow the world to be once again pervaded by ‘dust’ – a physical manifestation of conscious thought and love. Lyra is unaware that she is a child of prophecy, but events lead her in a quest to rescue her friend from the ‘Land of the Dead’ even if that means destroying death itself, in so doing bringing the prophecies to life.
It is this anti-Christian message that runs through out the book that has made Pullman’s work a source of controversy for some Christians, and the Association of Christian Teachers has actually called for the show to be banned. Others who have no wish to defend Christianity have accused Pullman of wilful misunderstanding of the church, and that his novels would work better if this was not the case. Personally, I find his portrayal -which is of course partly caricature since he is writing fantasy- alarmingly accurate. We have a pope telling people in Africa who are living in an aids epidemic that it is a mortal sin to use a condom. We have an evangelical president of the USA funding pre-marital abstinence based sex education, a president who as governor for Texas encouraged teenagers to take vows of pre-marital purity for Jesus’ sake. Can anyone reasonably doubt that in those parts of the world where Christianity still has a strong hold on society its message is one of life-denying shame and guilt with death seen as a just punishment for our sins?
In Pullman’s world nearly all human beings have a daemon attached to them that are a physical manifestation of a person’s soul and takes the shape of an animal. Puppets, manipulated by black clad hand operators represent the daemons and initially the puppet operators are a distraction and make it difficult to focus on the puppets rather than their operators, but as the show progresses the operators gradually disappear from perception and the puppets themselves become real animated characters in their own right. In one of the many dark moments in the play children have their daemons forcefully removed from them in a horrific operation that leaves the child in a zombie-like condition. I was surprised to discover that I felt as much anguish for the separated daemon puppets as I did for the children. The simple beauty and elegance of some of the daemon puppets also add a numinous quality to the whole production.
The two heroes of the story are Lyra and Will, two 12-year-old children who are from different parallel universes. Each child has a troubled childhood; Lyra as been abandoned by her parents at a boarding school and Will struggles to look after his mentally ill mother. The story is based around their growth through puberty into adolescence as they unknowingly act out the Genesis story of Adam and Eve, only now their love and search for knowledge uplifts the world and removes death as a punishment, rather than condemns it.
Anna Maxwell Martin gives a phenomenal performance as Lyra. She captures the innocence of childhood and is able to express anger, inquisitiveness, and loyalty with all the fierceness and passion that only those who still possess the simple candour of children are able to do. I found her and her performance totally captivating. Dominic Cooper plays with equal naturalness the part of Will, and movingly expresses anguish as a troubled child who worries about his mother and longs to discover who his father is. However, he never quite manages to touch you with a child’s vulnerability, and as a result does not emerge from underneath Lyra’s shadow. His performance seems more of a supporting role for Lyra rather than that of the show’s second principal character.
The whole cast perform well, though Patricia Hodge as Mrs Coulter could be more malevolent, but she does capture the dubiety of a woman caught between ambition and newly discovered maternal instincts. Timothy Dalton plays the role of Lord Asriel, the man determined to reach heaven and destroy the ‘Authority’, like an Indiana Jones adventure hero.
So has Nicholas Hytner succeeded in producing a great epic fantasy on stage? On the positive side it certainly has captured the angst that lies at the heart of Pullman’s trilogy, and is able to bring the daemons and many of the other mythical creatures to life. On the negative, Giles Cadle’s stage design never quite works, despite the revolving Olivier stage; I rarely had the sense of moving from one magical and mysterious realm to another. Only with the ‘ Land of the Dead’, did I feel as if I had been transported to another world. Whilst a great deal of detail appears to have gone into the puppets designed by Michael Curry and the costumes designed by Jon Morrell, it seems that ideas had become more scarce when it came to creating the different environments that these beings inhabit.
Nicholas Wright’s adaptation of Pullman’s trilogy uses flashbacks as a way of telling the story which is why the opening scene of the production has Lyra and Will meeting as young adults. Sadly, this tells us the conclusion before the action begins, which for a work that is strong on narrative I believe to be a mistake. I found myself searching, unnecessarily, for the clues that explained the opening scene rather than allowing the story to naturally unfold.
The story that Pullman tells is captivating and mysterious and his writing is able to fill your imagination with strange worlds and even stranger beings, to swell your heart with emotions of angst, joy and forlornness, and grip your mind with the philosophical questions about the meaning of life, Why are we here? Are we creatures of fate? What is free will?
Hytner’s production succeeds for the same reasons. It proves that the theatre is able to nourish the imagination in the same way as the written word. Movies may have all the special effects, but they leave nothing for the mind to fabricate, and so often misses that essential element in any work of fantasy, which is our own power to fantasise.
Production by photo Ivan Kyncl
What other critics had to say.....
NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, “Dark and fantastic epic.” JOHN TAYLOR FOR THE INDEPENDENT says, “Epic journey excels when simple drama is applied.” MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, “There is much to admire in the staging; yet the result, inevitably, is like a clipped hedge compared to Pullman's forest.” CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, “An honourable failure rather than an exhilarating success. There are some striking moments and several superb performances, but too often the production seems earthbound when it ought to soar.” BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, “I must admit that, lover of all things bold and imaginative though I hope I am, I was weary by the end…..tension and excitement get lost in the pseudo-theological blather.” ALASTAIR MACAULAY for THE FINANCIAL TIMES says, "It is mainly good." SUSAN ELKIN for THE STAGE says, "gloriously entertaining production."