Spotlight on ‘Dark’

Sold-out show will return to NT next Christmas

LONDON — Some less-than-luminous reviews weren’t enough to dim the opening-week impact of “His Dark Materials” at the National Theater.

Less than 48 hours after director Nicholas Hytner’s six-hour-plus stage version of Philip Pullman’s bestselling trilogy had its belated debut, the theater’s a.d. was able to look with pride at yet another sellout under his regime — and to plan the epic’s return visit to the Olivier auditorium for a second stand next Christmas.

Hytner, speaking in a public interview prior to the Jan. 6 evening perf of Nicholas Wright’s adaptation of the fantasy novels, said a second go-round for the production made good sense: “Yesterday, the box office was under siege for a sold-out show, and that tells you: Do it again.”

Not that the NT box office had many seats to sell by the time the two plays opened to the press in a daylong marathon Jan. 3, some two weeks after the original opening day, Dec. 20, was scuppered for technical reasons.

With an advance sale in the realm of £2 million ($3.64 million), the limited run through March 20 was sold out (day seats and standing room aside) before it even opened. An extra week has been added through March 27 to accommodate those theatergoers who lost out when the production canceled several previews early on: two of part one, one of part two.

Hytner’s decision to bring the plays back next Christmas has at least one precedent in his own production, under Richard Eyre’s NT auspices, of “The Wind in the Willows.” That staging, a huge hit with the seasonal family audience, was first seen in 1990 before returning to the Olivier in 1991, ’93 and ’94, before then transferring down the road to the Old Vic.

“Willows,” if memory serves, was better reviewed across the board than “His Dark Materials” has been to date, with an early rave for the new venture coming from the Economist before the plays had even opened. But even the less positive reviews applauded the National’s ambition and its decision to stake out new territory rather than dusting off one or another old musical, as Hytner’s predecessor, Trevor Nunn, did by programming first “South Pacific” and then “Anything Goes” in the financially crucial Christmas slot.

In economic terms, the NT’s “Dark Materials” outlay — in the vicinity of $1.54 million — was, says Hytner, “the kind of budget you would give a musical: a little more than was spent on ‘Anything Goes’ and a little less than on ‘My Fair Lady'” (another Nunn revival).

The money was well spent, according to the Evening Standard’s Nicholas de Jongh, whose review, unusually, was allotted all of page three of the afternoon tabloid. “Hytner’s staging has oodles of narrative zest,” he wrote, praising “an astonishing epic of narrative and theatrical invention.”

Elsewhere, in an unusual show of critical unanimity, four of the London papers that regularly grade productions all gave “His Dark Materials” three stars out of five. Under the headline “A lot of time to Phil,” Claire Allfree in daily freebie Metro spoke for many in remarking that “the trilogy’s multilayered narratives and thematic complexities are undeniably happier on the page than on the stage.” In the Financial Times, Alastair Macaulay urged readers, “Book to see it next Christmas, and hope that by then the staging will fly on surer wings.”

Paul Taylor in the Independent said, “The production feels over-hectic with plot at the expense of allowing you to savor the weird poetry of these extreme situations,” though he echoed many in admiring Anna Maxwell Martin’s vigorous perf in the demanding central role of Lyra Belacqua. Praising her and colleague Dominic Cooper, as Will, Taylor wrote: “I have never seen impersonations of the tricky pre-adolescent state so uncondescending or empathetic.”

Rather more skeptical notes were sounded by Michael Coveney in the Daily Mail, who faulted “a distinctly stop-go affair (where) fluency and magic are in short supply.” And though he thought Maxwell Martin was “superb,” the Daily Telegraph’s Charles Spencer said: “Again and again you feel that the narrative is being hurried in order to cram in as much as possible. … Too often, the show just feels like one damn thing after another.”

The plays’ American appeal will be tested later this month when the New York Times’ Ben Brantley sees “His Dark Materials” at a daylong sitting. Initial auspices for a strong transatlantic response to the play aren’t great, notwithstanding interest from New Line Cinema in launching a film version, to be written by Tom Stoppard, in 2005 or, more probably, 2006.

At least one group of visiting American theater buffs in London over the holidays was distinctly underwhelmed by part one during previews, with all but a handful walking out at intermission.

Hytner, meanwhile, was taking pleasure in the response of the (mostly British) audience that stays the course.

In the winter, he said, “When you silence even families with flu, then you know your play is working.”

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