Not every theater program comes with its own alethiometer tucked inside it, and if you already are in the dark as to what I’m talking about, chances are “His Dark Materials” won’t be for you. Conceptually bold and extravagant, yet also patchy and not a little wearing, Nicholas Hytner’s National Theater — a consistently newsworthy address during 2003 — gets the new year off to a headline-making start with as ambitious a project as the thrust-stage Olivier auditorium has ever hosted.
While Hytner’s predecessors, Richard Eyre and Trevor Nunn, were in their jobs for some time before directing trilogies of plays by David Hare and Tom Stoppard, respectively, on the same stage, Hytner hasn’t even been National a.d. for a year and he’s already tackling a two-play version of the Philip Pullman trilogy of novels. And with New Line prepping a bigscreen version of the books, to be adapted by Stoppard, media interest in Nicholas Wright’s stage version is likely to be intense. Expect the sold-out sign to be up throughout the limited three-month run, as well as intense debates during that time, and long after, as to whether the six-hour-plus sit is/was worth it.
The short answer: Pullman acolytes are likely to respond most keenly to the results, once they get over the omission from Wright’s inevitably compressed version — 1,300 pages distilled into six hours — of the scientific researcher Mary Malone and the wheeled beasts the mulefas. Relative newcomers to Pullman bandwagon, like myself, will probably find themselves engaged in fits and starts, and impressed by the sheer determination required to get the two shows up at all. But nonaficionados also will be aware of the lapses in pacing, tone and, at times, imagination.
In addition, some auds will either be delighted or dismayed by the sheer ferocity of Pullman’s anti-clerical stance (don’t expect a transfer any time soon to the Bible Belt), while others will be drawn to the kind of stagecraft — Michael Curry’s puppet designs, for instance — that is not common even at the National.
There’s something for everyone, in other words, in “His Dark Materials,” and, frankly, a bit too much of everything. The sheer weight of the proceedings may befit a spectacular slab of fantasy fiction that has been spoken of in the same breath as Blake and Milton (Pullman’s title comes from “Paradise Lost”), but isn’t there less here than meets the eye?
The contours of Pullman’s plot in Wright’s adaptation are firmly in place, the stage narrative enhanced primarily by a framing sequence set in the Oxford Botanic Gardens that shimmers with the story’s defining sense of loss, as well as the pantheistic humanism that is Pullman’s answer to the castrating (actually so, in the play’s view) dogma of organized religion. Beneath a tree that would seem to be less one of knowledge than of fiercely achieved experience sits Lyra Belacqua (Anna Maxwell Martin), our heroine, at a moment of supreme self-sacrifice.
An Eve for our time, she must seal herself off from her beloved Will Parry (Dominic Cooper, an alum of Hytner’s NT production of “Mother Clap’s Molly House”), who exists in one of the simultaneous parallel worlds that animate Pullman’s cosmos. Why rupture so profound a love? To safeguard “Dust,” which is to say our very humanity, be it beneficent or not, which may be one reason why “Dust,” we’re told, is at once “beautiful and doomed,” as something approaching original sin must be.
Having started at the end, Wright unfurls across the plays the events of Pullman’s three books: “Northern Lights,” “The Subtle Knife” and “The Amber Spyglass.” (In the U.S., the first book was published under the title “The Golden Compass.”) We watch as the nearly orphaned (in her description) 12-year-old Lyra cuts a swath through different worlds and kingdoms — in some ways she’s a prepubescent Lara Croft — encountering the true identity of her parents; something resembling real love; and the honest counsel of her slithering, keen-eyed Daemon (pronounced “demon”), an unsparingly candid sidekick, or alter ego, which is perhaps best thought of in “King Lear” terms as each character’s personal Fool.
All the Daemons are elegantly conveyed, in “Lion King” designer Curry’s supremely imaginative envisioning, by black-clad members of a 30-strong company, who interact with the characters they are accompanying with ready wit. (I especially warmed to the agitated snow leopard who perseveres at the side of Timothy Dalton’s dashing Lord Asriel, the tale’s boldest antagonist of the church, or God, here described as the Authority.)
But after a while, so murky is the trail blazed by “His Dark Materials” — into the world of Icelandic myth one minute, a Salman Rushdie-style glance toward “destiny’s children” the next — that one clocks less what is taking place than how it is being made to happen: the whirling drum revolve of Giles Cadle’s set, pioneered a decade or so ago in, among other shows, Hytner’s NT production of “The Wind in the Willows,” which can whiz the audience from an Oxford bus stop populated by a sullen public to the specter-laden, palm-fringed land of Cittagazze and on to the mountain realm of Iorek Byrnison (a firmly spoken Danny Sapani) and his fellow armored bears.
It’s exciting to see every aspect of the National’s resources deployed at full throttle, including original music by Jonathan Dove that embraces a triumphalism of which John Williams would be proud (surely Williams will score the movie?) while at one point riffing on Bernard Herrmann in a neat aural gag.
At times, the cast members seem so many cogs in a metaphysical machine that is bigger than all of them; while a little of Niamh Cusack’s voluptuous Valkyrie of a witch, Serafina Pekkala, goes a very long way. (As choreographed by Aletta Collins, Cusack and her cohorts bring to mind the opening sequence, aptly set in hell, of the Rod Stewart tuner “Tonight’s the Night.”)
Luckily, the project is firmly anchored by the remarkably open-faced Cooper, as the literally otherworldly Will, the mutilated bearer of “the subtle knife,” and Maxwell Martin as the imperiled Lyra, who is never more moving than when divested (however briefly) of Pantalaimon (Samuel Barnett), her Daemon. Playing a character half her age, the performer commands attention when she speaks breathlessly of “something bigger than all of us put together,” even if it isn’t until later that you pause to wonder just how much is really there.