His Dark Materials, Birmingham Rep, Birmingham
Thursday 09 April 2009
Call me earth-bound in my imagination but I'm not entirely sure why Philip Pullman's fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials has exerted quite such a hold over so many readers worldwide. The story revolves around Lyra and her adventures with her pal Will as they drop in and out of parallel universes against an intricate backdrop of storylines involving physics, philosophy and religion. Added to this is the dangerous search for the source of Dust. (That's panpsychic particles of self-awareness.)
This latest take on Nicholas Wright's six-hour adaptation, divided into two plays, is less of a spectacle, less of a showing-off of whizzing technical resources than the production at the National a few years ago. Creating it for a practically bare stage with a minimum of props – after Birmingham it tours to Leeds – Rachel Kavanaugh and Sarah Esdaile have concentrated on the characters, divided between a 17-strong cast busying itself furiously, to conjure the malign forces and magical allure of Pullman's epic tale. Amy McAllister and Nick Barber rise remarkably to the challenge of the youngsters of the central roles, ably supported by Christopher Ettridge as the reptilian Lord Boreal, Timothy Knightley a bumbling authority and Charlotte Asprey playing the enigmatically alluring Mrs Coulter with consonants as clipped as her sharp practice in severing children's souls. These souls, or animal "daemons", vividly created as puppets by Blind Summit Theatre, take on a centre-stage life of their own.
Kavanaugh and Esdaile keep the action moving, twitching and tumbling their obliging cast rapidly between worlds. Switch off for a moment at your peril if you want to keep up with the battle between the repressive Church and the impending repeat of Satan's rebellion plotted by brusque Lord Asriel (John Hodgkinson). Valkyrie-like witches sway and swing on ladders, angels behave with beguiling campness, and beings emerge whose origins and motives are unclear.
It's not a production with which it is easy to engage emotionally and the adaptation allows little time to absorb the development of the plot and the relationships between the key characters. However Lyra's truth-telling device, the Alethiometer, says the show merits three stars on the basis that all involved make a decent stab at penetrating the heart of Pullman's extravagant vision. Whether or not you are familiar with the books, with Milton's Paradise Lost on which Pullman partly drew, or the recent film The Golden Compass it's not hard to follow this bold piece of theatre which held a packed audience enthralled. I found it hard, though, not to laugh aloud at some of the absurdities of an often convoluted fiction.
To 18 April (0121 236 4455); then West Yorkshire Playhouse 28 May to 20 June (0113 213 7700)
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