An epic battle of theatre vs cinema

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The curtain call for the National Theatre's adaptation of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy is one of those during which the congratulations travel both ways across the footlights. The actors on stage have made it through six hours of intense performance but then, let's face it, so have we - at least if we've attended one of the all-day double stagings of Nicholas Wright's theatrical distillation of over a thousand pages of prose. And, on the press day anyway, the congratulations were spread a little further too. Towards the end of the applause the backdrop lifted up to reveal the backstage paraphernalia and the entire technical crew walked forward to take their own bow.

The implication was clear. This was a triumph of technology as well as art and the stage managers - normally invisible - deserved their moment in the spotlight. They undoubtedly did, since whatever else His Dark Materials is it's a triumph of logistical planning - and it had to overcome serious technical difficulties before it opened. Now the Olivier's vast revolving drum rises and falls without a hitch, projection screens spring into life on cue and props do what they are meant to, which includes falling to bits at precisely the right time.

The technical complexity of the production is partly an attempt to keep up with Pullman's imagination - which stretches to a race of tiny people who ride on dragonflies and set-piece battles between armoured polar bears and ecclesiastical zealots. But there's something else to the concentration on spectacle in the publicity for the show (and in the emerging consensus about its success). This is a play which also needs to keep up with the cinema - and in particular with another spectacular fantasy based on a tripartite work of literature. There can't be many people who go to see His Dark Materials without wondering how it's going to stand up against Lord of the Rings.

The pious received opinion about this is that the theatre can match cinema punch for punch. Yes, it might lack certain representational freedoms but it more than makes up for it in immediacy. Pullman argues something like this in the show's programme: "They go clumping over the stage, you hear it", he says, when asked to explain his passion for theatre, "All the physical stuff, this is what children are starved of..." But that word "clumping" is surely a little more pertinent than he means it to be. Because the truth of it is that in certain respects cinema has changed the rules of engagement to theatre's permanent disadvantage. There are quite long sequences in His Dark Materials - sequences which I suspect are meant to sugar the theological pill - which simply have to be endured. The battle scenes are a particular case in point. You watch them with some sympathy -- they can't simply leave these crucial set pieces out after all - but at the same time there can't be anybody, on stage or off, who enjoys the business of going through the motions.

The prologue to Henry V might come to mind - if you feel you have a kind of duty to suspend your disbelief: "Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts;/ Into a thousand parts divide one man/ And make imaginary puissance". All right, you think. I'll have a go. That isn't just five blokes in purple greatcoats throwing shadow punches at Timothy Dalton. It's the church's army advancing to crush joy from the world. The only problem being that your imagination naturally turns to the best available model for an epic clash between the forces of good and evil - which for quite a lot of people will be Peter Jackson's genuinely breathtaking battle scenes in Lord of the Rings. What you find yourself imagining, in short, is how much more spectacular it will look when New Line eventually gets round to filming Tom Stoppard's film adaptation of His Dark Materials.

Shakespeare's audiences in 1599 didn't have much choice. If they wanted to see the collision of two vast armies it was imagination or nothing. More crucially, most of them wouldn't already have something more vivid in their head than what they could see on stage. We often do. And while that doesn't mean that spectacle is ruled out for the theatre it does suggest that the simpler it is the more likely it is to be successful. The best effects in the National's production are achieved with technology that would have been mundane to Shakespeare's stage manager - not the computer controlled lift but long sticks and bits of fabric.

And the very best effects of all have nothing to do with spectacle at all - but arise from the continuing ability of theatre to confront you with human feeling. In one long sequence the heroes of His Dark Materials descend to the Land of the Dead - and there are confronted with the horrors of immortality and the potential release of death. At such moments you realise that this is not grown-up theatre infantilised - as you can't help thinking occasionally during the breakneck passages of action - but children's theatre of an uncommon maturity and ambition. In other words it's dazzling in just the right way for theatre - nothing really to see but a great deal to think about.