In the interest of full disclosure, I have to admit straight off that the production of His Dark Materials
at the National Theatre ranks as my ultimate top theatrical experience ever. I am a massive fan of the books, and could not believe how well Nicholas Wright translated the three novels into two such wonderful, moving plays. Having travelled to Bath to see the youth production at the Theatre Royal there a couple of years ago, I was easily convinced to see the new Birmingham Repertory touring production at the Lowry Theatre in Salford, especially as it was so close to my parental home. So my mother and father, Aunty Jean and I settled in for the same day double bill, Part I at 2pm and Part II at 7.30pm, a little bum-numbingly daunting I’ll admit, but the only way to get the full impact of this theatrical wonder.
So much happens in the books and so whilst a lot is lost in the condensing of the action, this is largely to the benefit of the plays as the pacing is kept quite high, with many rapid scene changes which means that you really do have to listen carefully or else you could lose the thread quite quickly if you’re hugely familiar with the plot. That said, I was with two people who had not read the books and they had no problem following the action.
The technical masterpiece that was the revolving Olivier stage drum could clearly not be replicated for a touring company, and this actually has quite a liberating effect on this production, the action takes place on quite a bare set with a minimum of props, used very inventively, which really focuses the attention on the acting and on the words. Amy McAllister as Lyra captured the essence of the character perfectly, brimming with youthful indignation but crucially capturing the charm that sllows her to build such strong relationships with the key characters. Nick Barber as Will was also good, although I felt he looked a little too old for the part, he wasn’t quite as convincing as a 12 year old, but was much more convincing as the play went on.
Special mention has to go to the puppeteers, in particular Gerard Casey as Pantalaimon and Ben Thompson as Mrs Coulter’s golden monkey, who portray the daemons, the physical manifestations of the characters’ souls. Their incredible synthesis of animal movement and human interactions create real characters out of the puppets and really add another level to the action on the stage and if there is another scene which makes me cry as much as when Lyra and Pan are separated in the Land of the Dead, I will be very surprised. The polar bears were also well-realised with some well-drilled menace evident from their first appearance.
The only criticisms I had were around the portrayal of the angels Balthamos and Baruch. Played quite camply as comic relief, they got a lot of cheap (homophobic?) laughs and their role seems to have been pruned quite severely. So much so that by the time we’ve rushed to Baruch’s death scene, people are still giggling and the impact of what is a beautifully portrayed, moving death is considerably lost. Another minor point was that I felt Asriel should have been portrayed as less of a power-hungry villain and more avuncular in order that one feels more sympathy for his crusade against the Authority, but I suppose this is more about my interpretation of his character than anything.
So whilst your wallet and your bum may not thank you for the expense and the length, I would highly recommend tracking down this play if it comes near you. It really is one of the best things you could hope to see!