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 The Theatreguide.London Review

His Dark Materials
Olivier Theatre      Winter 2003-2004, Winter 2004-2005

(Reviewed in its first run. Much of the cast changed for the 2004-2005 season)

Adaptor Nicholas Wright and director Nicholas Hytner have turned Philip Pullman's trilogy of novels into two long plays, and fans of the originals - adults and children alike - should be delighted. Certainly the several school groups who saw each half with me were thoroughly involved.

I must begin with a confession - not only have I not read the trilogy, but I had not even heard of it before this adaptation.

So my experience of the staged work is not of seeing a beloved story come alive, but of getting caught up in, and trying to follow, both the complex plot and the alternative reality Pullman creates.

For those in my boat, as brief a summary as I can manage: In a parallel universe in which every human is accompanied by a talking animal that is both a companion and a projection of his or her soul, a twelve-year-old girl embarks on a series of adventures involving armour-clad polar bears, amazonian witches, a repressive Church, a cowboy in a hot-air balloon, angels, harpies. the souls of the dead, and many others, following her explorer father through sudden openings to an infinite number of parallel universes, including ours.

She encounters a boy from our world who is also searching for his father, and together they have more adventures, seeking to help her father reach and conquer The Authority, the source of all repression in all the worlds, to destroy it and free them all.

Amateur folklorists among us will spot echoes of dozens of antecedents and parallel epics, not least Tolkein's, and like the Rings trilogy Pullman's is driven by his success in creating a believable other world and in telling a rattling good story within it.

Now, I have to admit that for those of us who don't know what's coming, the story does have a linear and episodic quality that the condensation required for the stage makes even more evident.

This occasionally gives it all a made-up-as-we-go-along feel, or the flavour of a computer game in which each triumph just leads us to another level with a new setting, new monsters, new allies and new rules.

For example, at one point a magic knife is introduced, with the strict admonition that it must be kept safe for a particular purpose. Then it breaks, then we are told that it can be repaired good as new, then it isn't needed for the purpose we were told it was for, then it is broken again, this time irreparably.

It can be hard for the beginner to keep up with, when the rules keep changing like that.

The same requirements of adaptation force a few too many static scenes of exposition, as the next lurch forward is prepared for by someone saying something like 'To foil our foes we must go two universes over and, while avoiding the soul-sucking spectres, find our way to the high tower and wrest the magic dagger from its keeper so we can use it on the next level....'

None of this would matter if the plays were theatrically exciting, but while what goes on is enough to keep the fans of the novels happy, the rest of us have time to notice that the adaptation is not particularly inventive in purely theatrical terms.

Unlike, say, the RSC's Nicholas Nickleby of two decades ago, Nicholas Hytner has not found a new theatrical vocabulary for this work, and the episodic story is just marched through by way of flying in sets and revolving the stage, with members of the large cast all too evidently rushing off to change costumes for their next appearance.

Clever Asian-style puppetry makes the daemon animals come alive nicely, and Hytner does get to play with what seems the NT's once-a-decade use of the Olivier's infamous two-level revolving drum, though not as inventively and effectively as other directors did in The Shaughraun twenty years ago and Pygmalion ten.

Anna Maxwell Martin plays the young heroine with all the spunk, conviction and attractiveness of a girl's-own-adventure heroine, with Dominic Cooper matching her as her our-world companion.

Timothy Dalton has the appropriate masculine presence - and the almost inevitable woodenness - of the near-mythic father, but Patricia Hodge's road-company Cruella deVille performance as the villainess makes the character's sudden flush of maternal feelings in the second half hard to accept.

John Carlisle as an oily villain gives exactly the same performance he has in every other thing you've seen him in.

The rest of the large cast are to be credited for doubling, redoubling and quadrupling roles throughout, though a little too much of the acting resembles the alternating shouting and oh-so-slow-and-clear speaking of uninspired children's theatre.

If you love the books, you'll love the show. If not, you'll have some pretty heavy going.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of  His Dark Materials - National Theatre 2003

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