His Dark Materials (Playbox Theatre, Warwick)

Since missing the National’s original staging of Pullman’s magnum opus, I’ve been looking forward to another theatre company taking up the challenge. However I must admit, as I drove to Warwick, I wondered whether committing myself to six hours (the three books have been adapted into two equally long plays) of youth theatre was necessarily a good decision. However, I’m pleased to admit that I was absolutely wrong to have prejudged the production and I was impressed by the performances of its young cast and the ingenuity of the staging on what was, presumably, a fairly low-budget production.

The play is almost cinematic, with gloriously grand music structured around a recurring techno-inspired theme. The theatre is frequently bathed in red and blue lighting, and there is enough dry ice to induce a fit of asthma attacks in the audience, but this staging, far from being claustrophobic, reinforces the intimacy of the theatre. It’s a shame then that the directors sometimes lack the confidence to constrain their use of space: scenes high in the gantries are lost to poor sightlines and drag the audience out of its intense focus on the small stage.

Still, the directors keep admirable control of their sprawling cast, particularly in the raucous battle scenes, which could so easily have been a slow-motion catastrophe but are in fact surprisingly convincing. The leads are fantastic. Olivia Meguer – apparently short-listed for one of the Narnia roles – playing Lyra, convinces with her portrayal of a young girl developing from unruly child to pubescent teenager. Calum Finlay is the Will that I have imagined since first reading the trilogy: independent and stubborn, but brave and loyal. He also teases from the character a wonderful low-key sarcasm: both a shield against and fondness towards Lyra. Sophie Danks, playing Mrs. Coulter, exudes veiled menace from her first moment on stage while Ed Miller is an energetic Lord Asriel – if sometimes lacking in the gravitas the part demands.

The idea of daemons – animal representations of a person’s soul — creates wonderful scenarios in the novel, but presents a real challenge on stage, particularly since children’s daemons continually change form to represent the dynamism and volatility of youth. The National tackled this by creating a number of elaborate puppets, lit from the inside and controlled by black-suited puppeteers. The Playbox takes the simple approach, giving the daemon roles to actors. With purple faces and dramatically bleached and styled hair, they are a unique (but unobtrusive) presence on stage. I was spectacularly impressed by the young actor who takes on Lyra’s daemon, Pantalaimon. His physical awareness and the expressiveness of his body movements are remarkable. His interactions with Lyra ooze warmth, and the parting scene was genuinely moving (and all about him). Mrs. Coulter’s Golden Monkey is chillingly convincing, and I have to confess, in the Coulter-Asriel scenes, I spent most of my time watching the daemons’ menacing confrontations.

In sharp contrast to strong performances from the leads, however, some of the lesser characters are noticeably weaker. Brother Jasper, particularly, fails to convince as an evangelical priest with missionary zeal; the seduction by Mrs. Coulter comes off as rushed, forced and woefully out of character. Serafina Pekkala, whose role in the book has been seriously upgraded here, somehow tends to fade into the background, unable to muster the same stage presence as the confident main quartet.

Perhaps surprisingly, my main problem is not with the staging, but the adaptation. The Playbox has used the same script as the National, adapted by Nicholas Wright. Obviously, plays of any length would have difficulty conveying the full range of this story, and I’ve no problem with streamlining the narrative or excising characters. Indeed, I don’t think Wright went far enough. There is far too much going on here and, frankly, the play felt rushed. There is a good deal of exposition in part 1; important scenes are hurried and character development is left by the wayside under the galloping pace of the script. Part 2 is far stronger, precisely because it slows the narrative and allows the characters to unfold more deeply. Unfortunately, there is also something almost preachy about the religious message. Wright consistently underestimates and talks down to his audience; one of the great strengths of the novels is that Pullman avoids doing this.

Sadly, revealing the climatic emotional denouement at the beginning of the play rather undermines the power of the final scenes. In fact, Wright’s script seems to completely misunderstand the delicacy and subtlety with which Pullman develops Will and Lyra’s relationship. The organic way in which their love blossoms is crucial to the story, and suffers here from clumsy interventions by Serafina Pekkala – “isn’t he cute?” – that, even as they are spoken, seem to be acknowledged by both actor and character as a mistake.

Ultimately, I think this trilogy will be better served by a set of films that have the time and space to do justice to Pullman’s ideas. In the interim however, the Playbox has done a very good job of extracting the human elements of his story. Rather than being limited by its small space, the company has used that size to its advantage and created an intimate and moving production.

Until 23rd April, Playbox Theatre, Warwick. Sold out.

James Hicks

ArtsArts Reviews

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