Monday, 12 August 2019

His Dark Materials / The Golden Compass performed

His Dark Materials / The Golden Compass 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 due in Autumn 2019.


  • HDM = His Dark Materials, a trilogy by Philip Pullman
  • NT = National Theatre
In 2007 I'd not read the books but saw both versions of the play, adapted from the 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.
  • The Art of Darkness by Robert Butler, about the staging of the play.
  • 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.
  • On sale at the same time was Lyra's Oxford, a small companion book by Philip Pullman containing a short story, background info and a fold-out map.

Season 1 version - 10/1/2004

  • 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.

NW included some flashbacks, which worked well in this setting: typically there were of Lyra & 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.
In brief: 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. 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...

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.

Season 2 version - 8/1/2005

    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
The weakest parts of the plot were fixed in this version - slightly more exposition. For instance the death of the Authority scene was much clearer and more dramatic and the shipboard scene going north was completely clear, especially the seer. Another much improved scene was Lord Asriel's cutting through to another world.

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 - 9/12/07

(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 CGI is very convincing (better than Beowulf) and the acting is top-notch. Newcomer Dakota Blue Richards is completely convincing as Lyra and Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig are suitably ambiguous as Mrs Coulter and Lord Asriel.

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 should work well when all three parts can be watched.

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.

Philip Pullman interview - 9/12/2007

satellite link to Picturehouse cinemas 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.

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