His Dark Materials takes you through familiar and unfamiliar places, yet at the same time places you can believe in. Daemons, your soul, your conscience, your lifelong companion, your true inner self in Lyraís Oxford, a step away from the world we know in Willís Oxford, Cittagaze in the Northern lights fueling Lord Asrielís desire to save the world, the ongoing mission of humanity.
The 5.5 hour stage adaptation of His Dark Materials captivated and enthralled from start to finish. The opening scene, some years after the story ends, gives a clue to how it may end but at this stage we donít know the journey that Lyra and Will have to take. The final scene brings us to the same bench, same garden yet different worlds, an ending which manages to continually increase in sadness the more you dwell on it and the more you comprehend what it would feel like when forever means forever.
The immense Olivier stage is transformed into caves, icy wildernesses, boats, offices, laboratories, colleges, worlds of the dead and sun soaked terraces. The drum revolve rises to the full height of the stage revealing scene after scene, high above the sight line the action continues as new scenes appear below. The revolve moves scenes from one to the other and at a turn a new place is displayed a world away from the previous one. At the entrance to the world of the dead a ghostly boat turns in the darkness ever lowering itself to the stage. The technicality of this production is phenomenal and the stage team more than deserved the applause of the audience as they also took a bow as the back cloth raised to reveal the huge task of the production.
The costumes of the bears, a wire frame and light covering showing the bear head, with an extended claw on one arm. Iorek and Iofur are sublety differentiated as their heads and claws are the opposite way around from the other bears. What looked like huge mucky white fur overcoats completed the costumes and create the image of the bears in their full glory in your mind.
Puppetry features highly and the daemons are superb. Wire frames, light coverings and floaty material create the image, stature and movement of the daemons from Lord Asrielís snow leopard, Serafinaís Swan, Mrs Coulterís sinister golden monkey to energetic pine marten Pantemalion. The agility and skill of the actors operating the puppets brought the daemons amazingly to life, perfect movement perfectly creating the imagery of the daemons. Samuel Barnett brought Pan alive, his voice perfectly merging with the energetic Pan from his indignity at being called a cat, his thumping tail when both angry and impatient to his heartbreaking cry for Lyra as they are parted at the entrance to the world of the dead were beautifully conveyed. ĎPaní made a seamless transition on many occasions as he passed from Samuel to Lyra. Mrs Coulterís monkey was sinisterly created by Ben Wright, sharp movements, sneaky, spying and scarily watchful. Reptiles were the chosen choice to all the church daemons and birds for the academics at Jordan college plus at least one spider thrown in for good measure. Pan also took the form of a butterfly, moth, mouse when his presence was to be less obvious and after meeting Lord Asrielís snow Leopard Stelmaria, Pan took on her form for a little while as Asriel and Lyra meet as father and daughter. Willís daemon also appeared to be a snow leopard as well, when he finally got to meet her.
The daemons made seamless transitions from the puppeteer to the actors.
The angels Balthamos and Baruch were funny, slightly camp creations, a white human frame which ended in whispy material, yet voices and movement created a convincing double act. Small elements made them seem almost human such as Baruch checking his nails as he waited impatiently for Balthamos.
The Gallivespians were a delight, tiny people travelling on giant dragonflies, skilfully operated , with humour, to create individuals of the puppets.
The Harpies who stood guard at the entrance to the land of the dead looked stunning, black skeletal bird like figures, black wings, human carrion birds feeding on human misery and despair.
The cast were uniformly excellent, throwing themselves heart and soul into the story. Anna Maxwell Martin is on stage for easily 5 hours of the action, this is a part that requires not only acting ability but phenomenal stamina. She creates the 12 year old Lyra who grows in years, in months as she takes on the responsibility of saving the world against her own father. Dominic Cooper has almost a lengthy task as Will, spending at least 4 hours travelling in Lyraís company. Both gave excellent performances, working believably together to create 12 year olds both mature beyond their years and making the final declaration of their love believable. The final parting scene is very poignant and touching, you want them to see each other but know they never can.
Samuel Barnett is the unseen third party, dressed entirely in black the eyes see him but yet donít, he is onstage with Lyra all the time and a wonderful performance he gives to through the medium of Pan.
Timothy Dalton cuts a dashing figure as Asriel, the explorer and a man with a huge idea of a mission, tunnel visioned to where he wants to go. Patricia Hodge is suitably sinister in her kindness so that you donít trust her and her desire to look after her daughter feels secondary to what her final plans are. The scene as Asriel and Mrs Coulter depart to explore the world opened by the dust with no thought for Lyra finally confirms the lack of parental duty and concern.
All the cast should be praised for bringing the characters to life but to highlight some: John Carlisle as the slippery Lord Boreal, Danny Sapiniís powerful Iorek Brynison, true leader of the armoured bears, Ben Whishawís naÔve brother Jasper whose eyes are opened to the female presence unwillingly and Niamh Cusackís Serafina Pekkala.
Words cannot do justice to the vision of this production, skill of the performers and skill of Nicholas Hytner for bringing the books to life in an ever moving production which never once wanes the interest but continually heightens it. A superb triumph for the National and one not to miss on itís return next year.
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