NTwo decades ago, Nicholas Hytner triumphantly staged Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy at the National Theater. He returns to this quest world with this version of the first volume of another trilogy, which takes place 12 years earlier than His Dark Materials. Hytner displays the same wizarding touch to turn Pullman’s whimsical, swift tales into theatrical gold. His production of supreme elegance is vast, but never unruly, on a setting that dazzles but does not flood the narrative.
Bryony Lavery’s adaptation is lean without making us forget the story. Newborn Lyra Belacqua is hunted down by theocratic authorities after her anti-Christian future is prophesied. Malcolm is the 12-year-old son of an innkeeper (a single mother here) who finds himself involved in Lyra’s care with her thorny adventurer, Alice.
The central ideological battle between scientists and the sinister forces of the Magisterium is captured with an economy of its own, and some of Pullman’s investigations into the nature of matter and consciousness are briefly summarized, although purists may want a little more.
In some scenes, Lyra is played by a real, formidably well-behaved baby, which instantly raises the stakes and heightens our emotional responses. Samuel Creasey, an adult actor playing Malcolm, gives a surprisingly compelling performance from childhood. He is cheeky, straightforward and serious. Ella Dacres, as Alice, is her equal of steel and there is chemistry between them, although Lavery’s script doesn’t develop their romance to the same degree as the book.
Dark forces are convincingly unsettling: a woman’s body floats face down in water, the sound of a neck breaking. Ayesha Dharker, as Marisa Coulter, is a cult figure, encouraging students to join the League of St. Alexander, and Pip Carter’s predator Gerard Bonneville has a hissing threat, along with his giggling demon hyena.
The scene is action-packed with one dangerous turn after another, which faithfully reflects the spirit of the original, albeit unleavened by the book’s deeper philosophical ruminations. The production falls short of perfection for those who find themselves in the frantic pace and intrigue of Pullman – rather than Hytner.
It is no small feat that a story teeming with so many nuns, church authorities and terrorist police officers, as well as underground resistance and a secret service of scientists, be incorporated on stage with an elegant discipline that avoids overcrowding and confusion. The characters never feel flat, and they have some interesting intellectual complications. There’s also more wit than in Pullman’s book: Nuns make tongue-in-cheek asides, Malcolm brings miserable comedy, and throwaway lines are delivered with humor.
Bob Crowley’s set design glides seamlessly from Trout Inn to Convent, to the Inner Realms of Oxford University, then to a flood that fills floors and walls and creates a compelling illusion of Malcolm’s canoe – and the stage she – even – floating on the waves. Video design by Luke Halls, lighting by Jon Clark and sound design by Paul Arditti combine wonderfully: there are diaphanous moving screens that create an effect of depth, with beautiful pencil sketches of trees and trees. Windows.
What is more remarkable is the production’s ability to stay true to Pullman’s realistic, earthly fantasy. Just like in Hytner’s previous production, demons are puppets (kingfishers, lemurs, badgers, each one as magnificent as the next). Designed and produced by Barnaby Dixon, they are a marvel and shine from within like a luminous origami. They look like Jungian projections rather than airy and fantastic creatures.
Pullman, an avowed atheist, cannot resist the narrative appeal of Biblical imagery and they abound here, from the Almighty Flood to the Herod hunt of baby Lyra, to the final image of this child. marked, miraculously saved, like Jesus in a manger. Here is the ultimate Christmas spectacle – with sacrilegious twists and turns.