Review: His Dark Materials Part I, National Theatre

The National Theatre revived their adaption of His Dark Materials for a second run in answer to my prayers, or so I like to believe, in order to let me see it. The novels by Phillip Pullman are among my all-time favourites and though the idea of translating them to the stage caused me a little trepidation, I was immensely glad of the opportunity of the chance to see the shows.

Adapted with love and precision by Nicholas Wright who has been daring enough to make the judicious cuts necessary to create a workable piece of theatre out of the at-times-sprawling works of literature that form Pullman’s trilogy, the story that is told here is strong and cohesive and told with a sensitive clarity (although I can’t be sure how clear it actually is to anyone who hasn’t read the novels, truth be told). We follow the coming-of-age of two children, Lyra Belacqua and Will Parry and their adventure across a set of parallel universes as they search for answers to huge questions they both have, a journey that causes them to cross paths with polar bears, angels, witches, Texan explorers and in one of the most contentious of the strands of Pullman’s work, the organised might of the Church.

Though all elements are extremely strong, the design work by Giles Cadle is just awe-inspiring with a multitude of universes and locations created by a stunning set which utilises the full capacity of the revolving and rising drum of the Olivier in a way I could never have imagined. And the way in which the daemons, the animal embodiments of the human souls in Lyra’s world, were done, using various forms of puppetry and human interaction was just magical.

In a large ensemble cast, it did not feel like anyone at all was weak. Adjoa Andoh’s Serafina Pekkala was just perfect though, in a slightly expanded role, Elliot Levey’s cleric was suitably creepy, David Harewood’s Lord Asriel nicely aristocratic and Lesley Manville’s Mrs Coulter was a brilliantly tight ball of malevolent love, matching my thoughts of how the role should be portrayed very well. Elaine Symons’ Lyra was beautifully earnest and being slightly older, made more appropriate use of the sexual awakening of the character than I was anticipating, convincing as someone on the cusp of maturity and she was well matched by Jamie Harding’s eager Pantalaimon. Michael Legge’s Will was a more different interpretation to what I was expecting though, more of a miseryguts which made his own vulnerability a bit more touching.

Above all though, it just felt like a perfect adaptation, unafraid to step outside of the established world of the books and create something new, although wholly recognisable. And the unexpected pleasure of the cliff-hanger ending to Part I was something I’ve never experienced before in the theatre and should be used more!!

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