His Dark Materials

Lal, Kim, Lat (Lal’s sister) and I met up in London last night to see the first part of Nicholas Wright’s adaptation of ‘His Dark Materials’. Naturally, in true Culture style we only managed to get to our seats in the very nick of time, not once, but twice! (it is nothing less than an abomination that they should have an interval of a mere 15 minutes between the two halves).

We were seated near the back of the upper circle so we were some distance away from the stage, but I didn’t feel it impeded our experience very much – of course, I would have rather sat right up at the stage but then that would’ve been a bit more expensive and difficult to sort out.

The play began with Will and Lyra, sitting on a bench in the Oxford Botanic Gardens, talking to each other from different worlds, which was a rather good introduction to the story, and this was also used at the start of the second half. From there we plunge headfirst into main story of ‘The Northern Lights’ which in the play is more or less left untouched. While I can understand that, at least for the first book, you need to leave all the major events and characters in, the restrictions of a 6 hour play (3 hours for each of the two parts) mean that several sequences are compressed into only the most essential details – which unfortuantely leaves a lot of the wonder and charm out of them. Take Lyra’s stay at the bear palace in Svalbard – in the book, there are a fair few things that happen there. In the play, it deserves a scant five minutes – Lyra pops in, talks to the usurper King, there’s the fight, and that’s it. So to me the compromise between time and accuracy was acceptable, even good, but imperfect.

Generally, the actors were extremely good. Lyra and Will were cast very well and interacted smoothly. Timothy Dalton as Lord Asriel was also well done, but you don’t get to see that much of him in the first half. Other good characters included the Master of Jordan College and Lyra’s mother.

The various supporting roles suffered from slight cariacture and totally bizarre accents. The audience was left in no doubt as to the identity of the main bad guy (for the first part, at least), Fra Pavel, as he walked onto the stage with an unidentifiable but unmistakably evil accent and – even more amusingly – a shimmer of violins and foreboding music every time he opened his mouth. Was this really necessary? I don’t think so. Ditto for the head of the Church, who had the strangest Irish/American/Italian accent. To their credit, they were both convincingly nasty.

Lee Scoresby, the Texan, had an overdone accent and seemed relegated to the role of comic relief, mostly. Iorek the bear, I felt, was played very well although Lal and the rest had issues with the accents of the other bears.

By far the worst offenders in the play were the witches. Serafina Pekkala easily won the title of ‘Most Irritating Voice’ – a kind of overdone, grandiose, booming and Very Profound voice. She was backed up by the other witches, who couldn’t seem to decide whether they were real witches or some idealised Amazonian warrior tribe who danced around a lot.

Finally, Father Coren of the gyptians was played perfectly.

The set design was excellent, and for someone like myself who hasn’t been to a major play or musical for a very long time, the versatility of the stage was highly impressive. The centre and surround of the stage would regularly move up and down and rotate between and during scenes and the backstage crew were clearly hard at work switching things around to make them look convincing. Given that HDM is apparently the cheapest production around at the moment only makes their efforts more praiseworthy.

The fact that I haven’t mentioned the daemons yet goes to show that they were done very well. About a minute before the play started, I think Kim mentioned something about the daemons being manipulated by puppeteers in black suits. This immediately filled me with a sense of impending horror, and certainly for the first five or ten minutes of the play I found it hard to look past the puppeteers and see the daemons (also voiced by the puppeteers). However, after the novelty wore off I quickly forgot about the guys in black suits and instead looked at the daemons themselves, which were manipulated very well and amusingly, Mrs Coulter’s in particular. Only the main characters were given ‘proper’ daemons – the minor characters had to do with daemons they carried around themselves.

On the whole I found the play very enjoyable. I haven’t read the books for at least a couple of years but it seems that Wright has so far been very faithful to them. There are many things that could be improved, but even more that shouldn’t be changed. I’m definitely looking forward to seeing the next part on Tuesday.

Incidentally, we all thought that watching all six hours of the play in one afternoon wouldn’t be that difficult. Think again. Three hours was long enough.

Some links about the play in today’s Guardian – an article about Archbishop Rowan William’s praise of His Dark Materials and the praise itself.

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