Pullman's six-hour children's epic returns by popular demand

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The Independent Culture

Hundreds of fans of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials were left bitterly disappointed last year when the National Theatre staging of his trilogy sold out before previews began.

Hundreds of fans of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials were left bitterly disappointed last year when the National Theatre staging of his trilogy sold out before previews began.

But from Saturday, they are being offered a second chance when the two-play, six-hour epic returns with a new cast - though they might have to act quickly. The theatre has already sold more than £2.5m worth of tickets, with the first part 60 per cent sold out and part two nearly as busy.

Nicholas Hytner, the National's artistic director, predicted yesterday that the production would enjoy completely full houses during the run which opens on 8 December and continues until 2 April. "We've brought it back because so many people who wanted to see it didn't get to," he said.

"It's plainly going to sell out again this year. What we're trying to do is ensure that we give people as much of an opportunity to see the things they really want to see without compromising the rest of the repertoire. People always think that we take things off too soon.

"With these big shows, it seems wasteful if, after all the time and resources that go into them, they are not seen. It would have seemed irresponsible not to have allowed the people who wanted to see it to come in."

His Dark Materials was, Mr Hytner said, "as ambitious a project as we had ever taken on" and proved so challenging first time round that the opening night had to be postponed because of "insuperable technical difficulties". With a budget of £850,000, it cost a little more to stage than the musical Anything Goes and less than the National's blockbuster, My Fair Lady, both of which subsequently transferred to the West End.

But the logistics of His Dark Materials, including some of the most complicated stage machinery in theatre, makes it virtually impossible to transfer to another theatre. It takes 30 actors, 24 stage crew, eight electricians, eight musicians, five stage managers and four sound engineers to mount. There are 110 quick scene changes including a flying hot-air balloon, revolving platforms, computer graphics and 90 puppets representing Pullman's daemons.

It was seen by nearly 139,000 people last time. But Mr Hytner is fairly certain that the production will not return for a third run even though, for example, the adaptation of Kenneth Grahame's Wind in the Willows did. "Once it has, we hope, played to packed houses for two separate runs I wouldn't be confident it would do the same again," he said.

Yet anyone who saw it last time could still be surprised by a return visit to the epic world of Will and Lyra and the Miltonian battle between good and evil, he said. The cast is almost entirely new, with Elaine Symons, a Rada-trained Irish actress, taking the lead part of Lyra, and Michael Legge, who was the little boy in the film of Angela's Ashes, playing Will. And Mr Hytner said it has been improved. "I was immensely proud of it but as soon as something is up, I became painfully aware of what I would have done differently. It's another reason to revive it."

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