[Milton-L] review of Pullman's His Dark Materials

Alanhorn3 at cs.com Alanhorn3 at cs.com
Mon Jan 5 11:43:51 EST 2004

His Dark Materials 

National Theatre, London 

3/5 stars

Michael Billington
Monday January 5, 2004
The Guardian 

Nothing is more tempting than the apparently impossible. But, although 
director Nicholas Hytner and his creative team display heroic courage in turning 
Philip Pullman's epic trilogy into two three-hour plays, they are ultimately 
overcome by the vastness of the enterprise. There is much to admire in the 
staging; yet the result, inevitably, is like a clipped hedge compared to Pullman's 

Partly, it's a problem of scale: Pullman's 1,300 pages have to be condensed 
to manageable proportions. Shrewdly, the adapter, Nicholas Wright, begins at 
the end with Pullman's protagonists, Lyra and Will, meeting on an Oxford 
park-bench while existing in parallel worlds. What follows is a retrospective guide 
to their amazing adventures. Wright has also axed several key characters 
including Mary Malone, the scientist who stimulates Lyra's sexual awareness, and the 
militant angel, Metraton. Although Wright avoids a linear plod through 
Pullman's inverted Paradise Lost, he cannot hope to match the amplitude of the 

But there is a more specific problem in adapting Pullman for the stage. Part 
of his intention is to rewrite Genesis, as well as Milton, and to rescue 
humanity from a Christian culture based on sin and guilt. But, in so doing, he 
creates a quintessentially literary work where much of the pleasure lies in the 
cascading references. Apart from Milton, Pullman's books draw heavily on Homer, 
the Icelandic Sagas, Dante, Blake, Wordsworth, the Shelleys, Wagner, Barrie 
and Tolkien. I even detect a nod to Kingsley Amis's The Alteration, which 
assumes the Reformation has not taken place. You can obviously pick up many of these 
allusions from the stage, but I can't think of any recent fiction that 
depends more on an intertextual complicity with the reader. 

Adaptation also reveals Pullman's weaknesses, as well as his strengths. The 
thrust of the story is to show Lyra and Will reversing the fall of man, 
embracing knowledge and experience and defeating submissive obedience to a deity. 
But, in his didactic anti-clericalism, Pullman demonises religion to the point of 
absurdity. This becomes even more apparent on stage, where a witch says of 
the church that "as long as it's been on this earth, it's suppressed and 
persecuted everything good about human nature". And although Stephen Greif is 
wonderfully authoritative as a Jesuitical Calvinist with an American accent - thereby 
scoring three hits in one - it's hard to believe in a church that has hardly 
moved forward since the days of the Inquisition. Pullman's books may be a 
reaction against his bête noire, CS Lewis, but it seems to have escaped his notice 
that we live in a predominantly secular age. 

What the stage version does bring out is the positive side of Pullman's 
humanism. Much of the first two thirds is, quite frankly, heavy going. Culled from 
Northern Lights, Lyra's journey to rescue abducted children from the Arctic is 
faithfully done, but lacking mythic resonance. A classic case is a fight to 
the death between two armoured bears. In the book, this is a brilliant parody 
of chivalric combat; but here it is reduced to an ursine scuffle. And The 
Subtle Knife's power struggles in parallel worlds at times become, unless you're 
steeped in the book, impenetrably hard to follow. 

But in the final third, taken from The Amber Spyglass, the evening becomes 
truly moving. In an astonishing sequence, Lyra and Will descend to the land of 
the dead in a way that tugs at the heart. First Lyra is forcibly separated from 
her faithful daemon: the physical manifestation of her soul. She then meets 
the embodiment of her own death - a scene beautifully played by Anna Maxwell 
Martin and Samuel Barnett. Eventually, the dead are released from captivity on 
condition they tell true stories about everything they loved in life. Pullman's 
extraordinary vision of a universe in which the untethered dead merge with 
the wind and the trees is perfectly realised. 

This is the one transcendent moment that justifies the long haul, and that 
even enhances Pullman's literary magic. For much of the rest, one is left 
admiring the production's technical skill. Giles Cadle's designs make extensive use 
of the Olivier's drum-revolve, with witches and bears inhabiting its upper 
regions and Oxford colleges and consistorial church courts rising from its lower 
depths. Michael Curry, the puppet designer, also does brilliant work in 
turning the animalistic daemons into internally lit shapes manipulated by black-clad 

No complaints either about the acting. Martin as Lyra carries much of the 
show on her slim shoulders, and touchingly suggests, aided by Dominic Cooper's 
Will, the character's emergence into post-pubescent knowledge. Patricia Hodge as 
the sinister, fur-coated Mrs Coulter catches exactly the ambivalence of a 
woman who finds unexpected maternal instincts overcoming her power lust. Timothy 
Dalton's Lord Asriel, an aristocratic Satan challenging a crumbling divine 
authority, mixes Miltonic pride with boyish adventurism. And, in a large 
supporting cast, Tim McMullan stands out as a Machiavellian cleric, a Texan balloonist 
and the operator of a diminutive Gallivespian spy screaming in pain as he 
stubs his tiny toe against a tin cup. 

That is typical of the detail that animates Nicholas Hytner's production. One 
might ask for witches who looked less like touring-production Valkyries and 
for a more assertive score from Jonathan Dove to match the story's Wagnerian 
scale. But, on the whole, the production values are high. What I question is the 
adaptability of Pullman's trilogy, be it into theatre, radio or film. It 
seems to me the ultimate example of a literary project that achieves its fullest 
life at the point where the author's vision meets the reader's imagination.

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