Daemons leap into limelight as Pullman's dark fantasy takes life on stage
It has been attacked for being blasphemous, previews have been cancelled and it has been an intellectual, technical and logistical nightmare to stage. But even before the critics are allowed in today, the National Theatre has found itself with another enormous hit on its boards. The bad news is that, unless you have already bought tickets, you won't see His Dark Materials, the two-part, six-hour theatre adaptation of Philip Pullman's bestselling fantasy trilogy of children's books of the same name. Every one of the 126 performances in the National's 1,110-seat Olivier auditorium, is sold out until the end of the run on March 20, apart from 30 tickets available each day on the day.
The epic adaptation, which becomes "event theatre" twice a week when the two three-hour parts are performed as a demanding double bill, is critic-proof whatever the professionals' verdict today. But the National cannot extend the run - though it may be able to bring it back next winter - and the show is so technically complex, requiring the full use of the Olivier's revolve, that there is no theatre in the West End that could handle it.
Two weeks of previews - the first three were cancelled because of technical problems - have brought packed houses and prolonged ovations. Though the cast includes Timothy Dalton, the former James Bond actor, and Patricia Hodge and Niamh Cusack, it is a newcomer - Anna Maxwell Martin, who is in her early 20s and has only been with the National for a year - who has emerged as the star. The elfin-like actress plays Lyra, the 12-year-old heroine who is on stage for most of the running time, with such conviction that she is assured of a big future.
The challenge for Nicholas Wright, who wrote the stage play, and the National, which has spent 18 months and £850,000 on the production, was not only to whittle down Pullman's 1,500-page trilogy to six hours - on audio tapes the books last 35 hours - but to translate from page to stage the author's parallel worlds and cast of mythological beasts - armoured bears, cliff ghasts, harpies, flying witches and, toughest of all, daemons.
Almost every human in His Dark Materials possesses a daemon, an animal that, like an ever-present ghost, is a constant companion.
Nicholas Hytner, the National's artistic director, turned to America, to Michael Curry who designed the magical animals for the stage adaptation of The Lion King, to solve his problem. The result is glowing hand-puppets manipulated by puppeteers dressed in black who shadow the human characters like Siamese twins. When rehearsals started, Hytner, who has previously directed such National Theatre hits as The Madness of King George and Henry V, said staging His Dark Materials was the toughest challenge he had ever undertaken.
He told the Telegraph last night: "It'll be a while before I do anything like this again. It takes a very long time to get everything under control. Two plays is simply a lot to do and it has been immensely time-consuming." Praising his leading actress, he added: "Without Anna Maxwell Martin, there wouldn't be a show."
Preview audiences have been overwhelmed. "It is brilliant," said Clare Rainbow, 20, a theatre student from Sydney, Australia. "I haven't read the books but it wasn't a handicap. There were a lot of difficult issues, like the animals, cutting into other worlds and the religious problems but I had no difficulty understanding it. It was absolutely captivating."
Ellen Lister, 12, from Pinner, Middlesex, said: "It was wonderful. The puppets were one of my favourite things and technically it was the best thing I have ever seen."
Behind the razzamatazz, however, lurks a shadow. Pullman's trilogy is deeply anti-Christian. Lyra and her companion Will get caught in a battle between a repressive church and anti-Christians who wish to kill God - called The Authority - and establish a republic in Heaven. At the end, the two children witness the death of The Authority. Several sections of the Anglican church, which have already demanded that the books be removed from school libraries, have condemned the National for putting it on at Christmas. Rupert Kaye, head of the Association of Christian Teachers, has even said the play should be banned. He said: "Pullman sets out to undermine and attack the Christian faith. His blasphemy is shameless."
Pullman's response has been robust. "This is the National Theatre, not the National Christian Theatre. Our country contains not only Christians, but Muslims, Jews and a very large number of free-thinking humanists and agnostics. "We all have the right to get our story told at the National. If they want the theatre to put on a Christian story, they should write a good one."