His Dark Materials, Olivier Theatre London

Epic journey excels when simple drama is applied

It has been flagged as the most ambitious piece of staging at the National in 20 years. It certainly attempts the impossible - the storytelling equivalent of trying to pour all the oceans of the universe into a swimming pool or embodying a multi-dimensional, quantum physics conception of the cosmos in good old-fashioned 3-D.

So the stakes were already sky-high. The tension was then screwed up a notch when insuperable technical difficulties caused the cancellation of three previews and the postponement of the press day of this epic two-play dramatisation by Nicholas Wright of Philip Pullman's best-selling His Dark Materials trilogy.

As a result, public attention has naturally focused on the event as a will-they-pull-it-off-or-won't-they feat of technical wizardry. But watching Nick Hytner's six-hour production on Saturday, I found that it wasn't the parts where the Olivier Theatre was showing off its astonishing resources (with the mighty drum-revolve working overtime to dredge up diverse worlds) that made the keenest impact on me. The bits that I shall treasure are the moments of heart-stopping simplicity where Wright, Hytner and the two superb central performers (Anna Maxwell Martin and Dominic Cooper) prove they have grasped the emotional core of this inspiring saga - a colossally arduous rite of passage into puberty in which a pair of 12-year-olds from parallel universes redemptively re-enact the Fall, their positive embrace of sexual love and adult consciousness liberating Creation from the life-denying repression of the wicked Christian church.

The planned movie version (scripted by Tom Stoppard) will have major problems casting the leads, if the idea is to take child actors (à la Harry Potter) through a quasi-realistic progression into maturity, film by film. Wright's stage treatment, by contrast, makes a splendid narrative virtue out of using young adult performers in the roles and out of the fact that his adaptation is delivered in one fell swoop rather than in instalments.

The main action is presented as a massive flashback, with a framing scene that introduces us to Lyra and Will, now aged about 20, meeting for one of their psychic midsummer night trysts under a tree in the Botanical Gardens. They sit side by side but are literally worlds away from each other, cruelly separated in their alternative Oxfords, their souls yearning for reunion.

From this poignant vantage point, it feels utterly natural that the same performers should show us how Will and Lyra became these people and I have never seen impersonations of the tricky pre-adolescent state so uncondescending or empathetic. Maxwell Martin radiates the tough, weary street wisdom and underlying vulnerability of an illegitimate girl abandoned to her own devices by neglectful, high-born parents. Though the adaptation gives short shrift to his background story of protecting a schizophrenic mother from government harassment, Cooper movingly suggests the damaged side of Will that the boy's courage manages to surmount.

When this pair come to apply to university, their CVs will run to the length of, well, three-decker novels and include such extra-curricular activities as "cutting into parallel universes with a magic knife" and "witnessing the voluntary death of God". As it whisks you through their cosmic quest (which ranges from the Arctic wastes to the Land of the Dead), the production feels over-hectic with plot at the expense of allowing you to savour the weird poetry of these extreme situations. A huge tilted mirror, swirling dry ice, and grey-garbed ghostly prisoners successfully evoke the nightmare neverendingness and insubstantiality of death's kingdom, rendered more unnerving by the broken-winged flap of the excellent, shrieking harpies. But the haunting de Chirico-like quality of Cittagazze, the sun-soaked Mediterranean harbour town wiped clean of adults by the spectres and left to scavenging children, barely has time to register in the onward rush.

In Lyra's world, human beings have visible daemons, animal emblems that incarnate the person's soul or subconscious. With moulded wire heads and trailing wispy bodies of swishing translucent cloth, some of these puppets (designed by Michael Curry of Lion King fame) create the requisite impression of airy spiritual guardianship; others, though, seem to enjoy about as dynamic a relationship with their human sidekick as a fox fur stole does with its wearer. The best moment comes when Samuel Barnett, who manipulates Pantalaimon, Lyra's daemon, takes off his black mask and eerily reveals himself as her other constant personal companion, Death. That's the kind of boldly imaginative, non-technology-reliant touch that one would like more of in a production that too often (as in its depiction of the cutting into other worlds) leaves you wondering how Robert Lepage or Theatre de Complicite might better have handled things.

The stage version has more wit than the novels (it's a droll stroke that the dastardly cleric, the President of the Consistorial Court, has been made a close cousin of Donald Rumsfeld), but the questing horn motif that accompanies each appearance of the Subtle Knife suggests that it would take an opera to do justice to their density. Patricia Hodge is terrific as Lyra's devious glamourpuss of a mother.

A shame, then, that Timothy Dalton plays her super-intelligent but emotionally narrow father, Lord Asriel, as the hearty games teacher from hell. It's the wonderful younger pair who carry the evening - the ardour of their love and the painfulness of the fate that requires them to return to their parallel worlds making a conclusion as piercingly sad and noble as any I have seen in the theatre.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Thomas carried Lady Edith over the flames in her bedroom in Downton Abbey series five

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck as Nick Dunne, seated next to a picture of his missing wife Amy, played by Rosamund Pike

film
Arts and Entertainment
Rachel, Chandler and Ross try to get Ross's sofa up the stairs in the famous 'Pivot!' scene

Friends 20th anniversary
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham

books
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey

There’s revolution in the air, but one lady’s not for turning

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Chloe-Jasmine Whicello impressed the judges and the audience at Wembley Arena with a sultry performance
TVReview: Who'd have known Simon was such a Roger Rabbit fan?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Syria air strikes: ‘Peace President’ Obama had to take stronger action against Isis after beheadings

    Robert Fisk on Syria air strikes

    ‘Peace President’ Obama had to take stronger action against Isis after beheadings
    Will Lindsay Lohan's West End debut be a turnaround moment for her career?

    Lindsay Lohan's West End debut

    Will this be a turnaround moment for her career?
    'The Crocodile Under the Bed': Judith Kerr's follow-up to 'The Tiger Who Came to Tea'

    The follow-up to 'The Tiger Who Came to Tea'

    Judith Kerr on what inspired her latest animal intruder - 'The Crocodile Under the Bed' - which has taken 46 years to get into print
    BBC Television Centre: A nostalgic wander through the sets, studios and ghosts of programmes past

    BBC Television Centre

    A nostalgic wander through the sets, studios and ghosts of programmes past
    Lonesome George: Custody battle in Galapagos over tortoise remains

    My George!

    Custody battle in Galapagos over tortoise remains
    10 best rucksacks for backpackers

    Pack up your troubles: 10 best rucksacks for backpackers

    Off on an intrepid trip? Experts from student trip specialists Real Gap and Quest Overseas recommend luggage for travellers on the move
    Secret politics of the weekly shop

    The politics of the weekly shop

    New app reveals political leanings of food companies
    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
    Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

    Beware Wet Paint

    The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world