His Dark Materials at the Birmingham Rep

· culture ·

After a long and very excited wait, we went to see the theatrical production of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials at the Birmingham Rep. There are two parts (each about 3 hours long), but we chose to book both parts on the same day for maximum intensity.

In short, the production was superb. While the film 'The Golden Compass' had just the plot (and messed about with that) and none of the emotion, the play had all the emotion and most of the plot. With a cast of only 25 actors, and a very minimal set, they managed to get me (at least) to suspend disbelief and immerse myself completely in the worlds of Lyra and Will. Given the limited time and the size of the company, they did cut some parts of the books. Mary Malone does not appear at all, and some of the characters have a much reduced involvement. However, in my opinion, it retained the essential feel of the books despite the compression.

If you've read the His Dark Materials trilogy, you're probably thinking that it is unfilmable and unstageable. But somehow, Nicholas Wright, the pupeteers Blind Summit, and the cast do a brilliant job. The set is extremely simple, consisting of sturdy wooden tables and benches, wooden crates and a metal gantry, and that's more or less it. The crates are arranged in a curve with a curtain behind to form the prow of the ship, the benches are propped upright against the upturned tables to suggest the spires of Oxford colleges, and white-painted crates make an ice bridge in the frozen North. Sound effects are also used very cleverly. At one point, the characters are waiting for Lord Asriel's zeppelin to arrive, and the 3-D sound effect of a zeppelin engine made most of the audience look up reflexively towards the ceiling of the auditorium. The scenery and sounds suggest something and the actors help you to fill in the rest mentally.

The daemons are also a problem of course. Every character in Lyra's world has an animal-shaped daemon, which can talk. Even worse, children's daemons can change shape at will. In the film, they used CGI to show everything, and yet it was somehow rather unsatisfying. In the play, they only show the daemons of a few key characters, and the children's daemons are shown in their final form. Others are suggested by the children cupping their hands around a hidden daemon or other similar devices. The main characters' daemons are amazing puppets. Rather than building very lifelike animal puppets, they again suggested the form of an animal, in a way that reminded me of cave paintings. For example, Stelmaria (Asriel's snow leopard daemon) had a beautiful head, a segmented back and torso and a tail, but the puppeteer manipulated her so skilfully, that you could see a whole, real, snow leopard slinking across the stage. Similarly, Pantalaimon flowed across the stage in his pine marten form, and the Golden Monkey (with just a head, two arms and a tail) was unbelievably believable. If you see what I mean... Ben Thompson, who operated the Golden Monkey, must have spent ages watching golden lion tamarins, because he got the sharp, bird-like attention of him perfectly, then added an evil, sinister air. The puppeteers were on the stage, dressed in grey, but after a few minutes, you stopped even seeing them and just saw the daemon as a living being.

I hadn't been to the theatre for ages, and I'd forgotten how involving it is, and how much the reaction of the audience adds to the experience. There are a lot of very emotional moments in both the book and the play, and at various points, members of the audience couldn't help gasping or crying out. I don't want to produce any spoilers for anyone who hasn't read the book or seen the play, but for those of you who have read the book, the parts that made you cry in the book are wonderfully done. Lee Scoresby and Hester's big moment isn't in there, though, which is probably just as well -- I would have been an emotional wreck at that.

The cast were all terrific, and versatile too, since most of them played more than one character at various times. My only slight grumble is that some of the characters were treated in a more comic way than they were in the book. The Gallivespians were played for laughs, but they are arrogant, dangerous and ultimately quite noble characters in the book. Likewise, the angels Baruch and Balthamos got a lot of laughs for some reason. Perhaps it was the way they suddenly appeared with bare chests and golden hats and announced, "We are angels" in a slightly camp way. Again, the angels start off as aloof and arrogant (and somewhat tetchy) in the book, but become very touching, noble characters. I suspect that the director was trying to inject a little bit of a light note into what is actually a very dark, difficult piece, and there wasn't time to flesh out the nuances of each character. In any case, it didn't spoil my enjoyment. I should say that it's not toned down for children in other ways, and there are some quite disturbing scenes for young children, including torture with horribly realistic sound effects.

I don't know if there are still tickets available, but it's on until 18th April, so if you're in the Birmingham area, I would really recommend it.