Nicholas Hytner returns to the world of Philip Pullman with an impressively atmospheric take on The Book of Dust – La Belle Sauvage at the Bridge Theatre
“I need to know why the baby is so important”
Nicholas Hytner’s stunning reworking of the world of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials for the National Theatre remains one of my all-time top theatrical experiences, so the news that he would be returning to that universe filled me with excitement and trepidation in equal measure. Fortunately, The Book of Dust – La Belle Sauvage finds its own kind of festive magic to weave over audiences this Christmas.
The Bridge Theatre may not be blessed with the revelatory wonder of the Olivier’s drum revolve but with co-directors Emily Burns and James Cousins, Hytner has conjured something special with Barnaby Dixon’s austerely beautiful puppety, Luke Hall’s highly effective video work and designer Bob Crowley. From genial pubs to haunting convent halls (those illuminated habits!) to raging floodwaters, we’re joyously submerged in the thrills and terrors of this parallel universe once again.
Bryony Lavery’s adaptation has the unenviable task of making a satisfactory play out of the first part of a new trilogy, which does presume a certain amount of knowledge of that first trilogy. The Book of Dust is effectively a prequel, set 12 years earlier where the totemic Lyra Belacqua has just been born. The authoritarian Magisterium want to whisk her away to protect their powers, the nuns and academics of Oxford want to protect her and what she stands for but when those floods hit, it is left up to teenagers Malcolm and Alice to guard the baby (who, most adorably, is played by an actual baby in certain scenes).
If the plotting might not always be the most straightforward, especially if you’re unfamiliar with the properties of Dust and the manifestations of characters’ souls that are dæmons, I’d argue that the abundance of atmosphere and narrative propulsion will carry you along just fine. Relative newcomer Ella Dacres and actual stage newcomer Samuel Creasey are brilliant as the novice guardians thrust into loco parentis, the former slowly learning to let people in, the latter (sort of) learning to temper his good-natured garrulousness, the both also figuring out the complexities of puberty.
And around them, there’s a fine multi-roling ensemble, most taking on some manipulation of dæmons, the outward simplicity of the puppets unexpectedly affecting and effective. The marvellous Julie Atherton is at her best as a chillingly giggling hyena, the dæmon of Pip Carter’s villainous Bonneville, Wendy Mae Brown and Dearbhla Molloy’s nuns are a real treat and it’s always good to see Naomi Frederick. In Ayesha Dharker’s seductively, stylish shoes, Mrs Coulter remains a costumier’s dream (excellent cape work from Helen Johnson) and a startlingly brilliant character, and John Light brings all the dashing charisma one expects of Lord Asriel. Lots of fun.