His Dark Materials performed
Some notes and memories
Edited version of article first posted on my Facebook page on 10 December 2007, done in advance of the new lavish BBC/HBO version in November 2019.
- HDM = His Dark Materials, a trilogy by Philip Pullman (PP)
- NT = National Theatre
|His Dark Materials|
|The Subtle Knife|
|The Amber Spyglass|
|Standalone small books|
|Lyra's Oxford||A short story, background info and a fold-out map. This introduced Malcolm Polstead and Sebastian Makepeace, later to feature in The Book of Dust.|
|One Upon a Time in the North||A short story about Lee Scoresby, Hester and Iorek Byrnison in the polar regions. Also has a Snakes-and-Ladders type game Perils of the Pole at the back.|
|The Book of Dust|
|La Belle Sauvage|
|The Secret Commonwealth|
In 2007 I'd not read the HDM books but saw both versions of the play, adapted from the PP books by Nicholas Wright.
The NT staged it as their family offering around January 2004 and an amended version around January 2005. Two key factors made the previously 'un-do-able' possible: using puppets as the daemons and using the recently-restored unique stage machinery of the NT Olivier Theatre. The puppetry techniques mastered here enabled the NT's huge success with War Horse.
Nicholas Wright and Philip Pullman explained they'd made tough choices about what to leave out to reduce three large books to six hours of play but PP emphasised that he's a storyteller first and so long as the story holds up, he's satisfied. Now having read the books, I agree that nothing of importance was left out.
Related publications available from the NT:
- Scripts for both versions of the play. [ISBN 1 85459 768 X, 1 85459 831 8]
- The Art of Darkness by Robert Butler, about the staging of the play [ISBN 1 84002 414 3]
- Darkness Illuminated - a collection of the Platform discussions conducted by Robert Butler to coincide with the first season. [I went to the one featuring PP and the one about designing and staging the daemons.]
- The NT programmes for each season contain a lot of background material plus drawings by Philip Pullman. Season one included a fold-out supplement: The Alethiometer ('truth-measurer') - the Golden Compass, consisting of a full-size picture, explanation and background info. Season 2 had Lord Asriel's annotated map of the polar regions.
NT Season 1 version - 10-Jan-2004
- d. Nick Hytner
- Lyra Belacqua - Anna Maxwell Martin
- Pantalaimon - Samuel Barnett
- Will Parry - Dominic Cooper
- Roger Parslow - Darren Hart
- Lord Boreal - John Carlisle
- Mrs Coulter - Patricia Hodge
- Serafina Pekkala - Niamh Cusack
- Lord Asriel - Timothy Dalton
- Iorek Byrnison - Danny Sapini
Anna and Samuel were a huge success in their first major roles, both since going to great things (such as Bleak House and The History Boys, as several other cast members did). They had wonderful on-stage chemistry. As they were on stage for nearly all the 6h run-time, this really mattered. Samuel and the puppet Pantalaimon soon merged into one.
NW included some flashbacks, which worked well in this setting: typically there were of Lyra and Will at their favourite spot, a bench in the Oxford Botanic Garden (even if they were in different universes). The production opened and closed in that setting.
The play was hugely enjoyable and engrossing - essential for six hours!
The stage machinery was awesome. Around the central drum revolve is a rotating ring, which typically was used for the cast to move between scenes while the central part reset. There was no interruption to the action at any point.
The central drum revolve is in two halves - semicircles - each of which can be raised independently. These are giant semi-circular lifts. The flat vertical surface of one half was used as various walls or as a projection screen. The other half contained a column which could be raised and on the top of that a hatch. This was used in many ways: as a tower, as a ship's hatch...
When a play uses the revolve, the sets are typically mounted on semi-circular rolling platforms and stored in the huge backstage area, waiting to be rolled onto a lift for a quick scene change.
After the cast had taken their final bows, they moved to the wings, gesturing to the rear and in a dramatic move the backdrop was raised, revealing the bare walls far to the rear plus the huge stage crew (50+?), who got a well-deserved ovation. There were two teams, one for each 3-hour half.
NT Season 2 version - 8-Jan-2005
d. Nick Hytner
- Lyra Belacqua - Elaine Symons
- Pantalaimon - Jamie Harding
- Will - Michael Legge
- Roger Parslow - Russell Tovey
- Lord Boreal - John Carlisle
- Mrs Coulter - Lesley Manville
- Serafina Pekkala - Adjoa Andoh
- Lord Asriel - David Harewood
- Iorek Byrnison - Alistair Petrie
Whilst in general I preferred the first season's cast, I thought Adjoa Andoh was the better Serafina Pekkala. Most of the daemons were less expressive however.
The sets were better dressed and thus more convincing, though due to the relentless pace, sets were still kept simple.
The Golden Compass - 9-Dec-2007(based on Northern Lights, the first book of HDM; about 105m)
- d. Chris Weitz
- Lyra Belacqua - Dakota Blue Richards
- Mrs Coulter - Nicole Kidman
- Lord Asriel - Daniel Craig
The plot seemed to be almost scene-for-scene like the play (minus the flashbacks) but with a lot of simplification (for instance, the ship journey northwards and the characterisation of the King of the Bears). It ends with Lyra on the way to Asriel with her companions - a slight anti-climax for a stand-alone film but it might have worked well if all three had been filmed.
One odd change is that a Magisterium agent poisons the Tokay for Asriel's presentation in Jordan College, rather than the Master.
Lord Asriel's daemon, Stelmaria, only speaks in the opening sequence whereas in the play she has a lot of dialogue (as I recall).
The music was the usual bloated, over-orchestrated stuff of Hollywood - they've no notion that less is more.
Verdict: remarkably good, considering how Hollywood it is. Difficult to fault, bearing in mind they had to avoid alienating the middle-America audience and aimed for a younger audience.
Philip Pullman interview - 9-Dec-2007Satellite link to Picturehouse cinemas (such as Cambridge) from the Oxford one.
He's very satisfied with the film. When asked if he'd change anything, two items came to mind: he'd trim the ending (unnecessary dialogue) and restore cuts made for time reasons to the ship-board scene of Lyra and Serafina - they filmed a touching part with Farder Coram joining them.
Dakota was desperate to play Lyra (no ambition to be an actress), so joined the 10,000 children at auditions and became one of the two prime candidates. PP once again explained the need to have an adult actress for the play - can't employ a child for 6 hours - which became part of the reason for the flashbacks.
The unnamed interviewer seemed to have a background in fantasy and academic analysis of it: he asked a lot of silly questions based on academic theories, which PP laughed off. The Cambridge audience also laughed a lot at them.
PP was asked about current schools and as a former teacher he rubbished the Government's meddling with teaching and the harmful regime of testing: it measures the measurable OK but so little of what comes out of the education process is measurable.
BBC Radio AdaptationsThe HDM radio drama versions are available on CD and audiobook and are occasionally broadcast.
La Belle Sauvage, read by Simon Russell Beale, has also been broadcast, and repeated in December 2019, prior to the first broadcast of Simon's reading of The Secret Commonwealth on 23-Dec-2019.
Penguin Audiobooks of The Book of DustMichael Sheen brings the books to life superbly. They are available on Audible.