|Pullman's magical fantasy
becomes a National treasure
David Smith, arts and media correspondent
Sunday January 4, 2004
Daemons, cliff-ghasts, lovelorn witches, gyptians, harpies, armoured bears, soul-sucking spectres and tiny creatures riding dragonflies - the magical creations of writer Philip Pullman soared from page to stage yesterday in what could be the most spectacular theatre blockbuster ever.
His Dark Materials, a two-part, six-hour adaptation of the bestselling epic fantasy, had its world premiere at a sell-out National Theatre after early word-of-mouth praised it as 'thrilling', 'momentous' and 'the ultimate children's show'.
Pullman's writing has been dubbed 'Harry Potter for grown-ups', and the His Dark Materials trilogy was voted the nation's third favourite book in the BBC's Big Read poll. Its author, a former schoolteacher, has earned comparisons to Tolkien and C.S. Lewis but his anti-Christian polemic has been condemned as 'blasphemous' by the Association of Christian Teachers, which called for the show to be banned.
Pullman's story unfolds simultaneously in multiple universes, with locations ranging from leafy Oxford to the ghostly Land of the Dead, and climaxes in heaven with the death of a senile God. Many questioned whether it was possible to translate it to the theatre and the director, Nicholas Hytner, admitted that attempting it 'felt crazy'.
But his solution has held preview audiences spellbound with more than 110 rapid scene changes that include an entire room rising from and sinking back beneath the stage, revolving platforms, a flying hot-air balloon, a vast mirror, video footage, computer graphics, 90 puppets, hundreds of props and a dazzling array of special effects.
One of Pullman's best-loved but trickiest inventions, the daemons - devoted animals that are a physical manifestation of a person's soul - become paper puppets illuminated by an internal light and controlled by masked operators dressed in black so the audience almost forgets their presence. His armoured bear - warrior polar bears - are suggested by costumes and masks held forward by the actors in a technique reminiscent of the stage version of The Lion King. A machine that separates children from their daemons conjures moments of spinechilling horror.
Hytner, who warned on the first day of rehearsals that they would have to run 'like a military campaign', has marshalled an army of 30 actors, 24 stage crew, eight electricians, eight musicians, five stage managers and four sound engineers as well as some of the most high-tech stage machinery ever assembled. It cost an estimated £850,000 - significantly less than many West End musicals.
Adapting the story for the stage was an 18-month task for playwright Nicholas Wright, and rehearsals took twice the normal two-month period for a National production, with actors working six days a week. The central characters, Lyra and Will, are played by Anna Maxwell Martin and Dominic Cooper, who though in their twenties have won early praise for their portrayals of 12-year-olds wandering between parallel worlds. Lyra's parents are played by Timothy Dalton, the former James Bond star, and Patricia Hodge.
The theatre created a puppet department for the first time in its 30-year history to produce designs by Michael Curry, mastermind of The Lion King. Jon Morrell, the costume designer, spoke of 'almost sleeping at the National. I've never worked on anything like this in scale and ambition.' The monumental enterprise almost became too much when some previews were cancelled and the first night was postponed from 20 December due to 'insuperable' technical difficulties.
Two weeks later, His Dark Materials looks set to be Hytner's crowning glory after a triumphant first year as artistic director of the National. The show, which runs until 20 March, has been such a hit at the box office that all 126 performances in the 1,100-capacity Olivier auditorium are sold out, although 30 seats and 64 standing places are available each day from 10am. The technical scale and complexity of the two-part production, which runs as a double bill on Saturdays, means a West End transfer is highly unlikely, but it could well be revived at the National next Christmas.
Michael Rosen, the children's writer and critic, who attended a preview last week, said: ' The magic is as good as it could be. I loved it.' Liz Queenan, 60, a BBC children's TV production manager from Marylebone, London, said: 'The storytelling is tremendous, really imaginative throughout. The way they've achieved the super natural effects is very impressive.'
Danielle Walerman, 40, from Hendon, north-west London, said: 'It was fantastic. The technology was outstanding. It was great to see the technical crew come and take a bow at the end.' Her daughter, 14-year-old Gaby, added: 'If you're going to make a play of books that are so deep then this is as good as it can be, the ultimate children's show. Some plays and films spoil your imagination but in this the actors looked like the characters I expected.'
Their father, Anthony, 42, a marketing director, said: 'It was interesting during the interval to see how many parents were having it explained to them by their children.'
Kate O'Hara, 13, from Datchet, Berkshire, said: 'It was amazing how quickly they changed the scenery. But the parents should be more evil. In the book they're very evil.'
Terri Paddock, editor of
whatsonstage.com, said: 'His Dark Materials is the biggest thing in theatre in
the last 12 months. The National is setting the pace theatrically. The challenge
for the West End and others is how to keep up.'